In October 2014, the Board of Directors of Saranac Community Schools (SCS) in Ionia County, Michigan invited the public to address the board regarding their R*dskin school mascot. The invitation was extended after Saranac Community Schools was met with pro-mascot backlash against not only the decision to ban the tomahawk chop song in September but also against how the decision was made without the say-so of pro-mascot enthusiasts. In a comprehensive introduction given by the Chair, Steven LaWarre, attendees learned that Saranac Community Schools had been addressing concerns with this mascot over the years and had eliminated the actual mascot from games, replaced the Chieftain with a dream catcher, and changed their team clothing.
According to one source, Superintendent Maury Geiger announced the banning of the tomahawk chop song to parents in a letter dated September 18, 2014. He explained that the school system wanted to ensure Native Americans were being treated respectfully; that Saranac Community Schools was attuned to the local, state, and national discussion happening around Native American sports mascots; and, that Saranac Community Schools was committed to affirming recognition, support, and promotion of diversity in the school and community. All of these actions indicate Saranac Community Schools is aware that the mascot is problematic and while it has been virtually transformed, the name continues to exist.
It’s difficult to comprehend how a community and a school board who are well educated as to the meaning of the word r*dskin, which refers to the scalping of Indigenous children, women, and men for bounty, could remove all aspects of this mascot and yet still keep the name. Do they not realize that R*dskin not only refers to how Indigenous peoples were violently treated with the permission of American authorities but it refers to the behaviour of Americans. R*dskin is a marking, a telling, a detailing of how Americans, historically, treated Native Americans. What does it mean that in the 1700s it was used in reference to bounty for scalps, that it was invoked as a sports team name in the 1930s and today, in 2014, it still exists?
Some have asserted that the intention was not to invoke the meaning when the mascot was created in the 1930’s. However, intention does not matter. It matters that this community and this school board have not removed it knowing what it means.
Aware that pro-mascot enthusiasts are attached to the mascot for many reasons, including that they’ve had it for almost ninety years, Belinda Bardwell, citizen of Little Traverse Band of Ottawa Indians and former tribal councilor, reminds of the need to be aware of the context in which this decision was made. She says, “In the 1930’s when Saranac took this name, our people weren’t even citizens, many of us weren’t even [recognized by the U.S. as] Sovereign Nations yet. We were oppressed in large numbers…” In this light, one has to wonder, were the people who made this decision back then operating in the oppressive attitudes of the times? Were they symbolizing the manifest destiny days by reifying r*dskin and its historical meanings within the community? Such a sports mascot would feed into the culture of winning—fierce, relentless, no fear winning. Or, were they a distinct and unique group of people attempting to disrupt the oppression through an act, however misguided, of honouring Native Americans? Although possible, it’s unlikely that a group—most likely a group of white men—who were discussing a sports mascot in a time that was oppressive towards Indigenous peoples, would stop and say, “Hey, you know what? This is the opportune time to honour Native Americans. Let’s call the team the R*dskins!” While we won’t really know what influenced that decision back in the 1930s without historical research, what we do know today is that the pro-mascot enthusiasts—American and Native American—have a number of reasons why they want to keep it. One of the most popular quips heard throughout the country on this topic and in Saranac, is that the use of r*dskins is intended as a way to honour Native Americans.
According to the letter sent home to parents, Saranac Community Schools also wants to honour Native Americans, or at least ensure being respectful. It seems there are different ideas about how to honour and respect, possibly even shifting ideas. For example, on the same day of the letter, Greiger also asserted in an interview that Saranac Community Schools would not be changing the R mascot. How does this ensure respect for Native Americans?
Waaseyaa’sin Christine Sy
The public commentary, which was video-recorded by the Board, was well attended with a range of perspectives presented from a diverse group. Some were respectful of Native Americans; many were not. The Chair did not intervene on the toxic statements made about Native Americans and black people. Media coverage failed to include anti-mascot perspectives or toxic comments made by pro-mascot commentators. Bardwell recalls that evening and states, “[One news station] only showed clips of two Saranac supporters! My feeling was that there was an even number of people who voiced their opinions for and against; they completely eliminated our voice from the public. The media shapes and forms the public views and opinions of various topics and they failed to report the entire story in an unbiased way. Their news coverage showed the community their viewpoint of that evening. They stole our voices.”
Bardwell, whose daughter addressed the matter in a school project when she attended Saranac High School, wants the mascot removed. When asked about her experience at the Board meeting, Bardwell said, “I was ignorant to the level of mis-education, racism and prejudices that manifested during the public comments. On one hand they want honor us as a people and on the other hand they said such hurtful and misinformed statements. My 12-year-old whispered to me in reference to the school board’s introduction that was read at the beginning of the meeting, ‘…if [the R word is] defined as a racial slur, why do they want to keep using it?’ I think this question gets at the crux of the issue.”
Emails sent to Le Warre and Greiger requesting an update on outcomes and next steps have gone unanswered. According to some who attended that meeting, there’s been no word about next steps and news reports indicate SCS has not said if or when it will take further action. SCS Board Meeting Minutes are posted online however these have not been updated. The momentum generated by SCS in making changes to the mascot, the letter sent to parents communicating their goals and decisions around the mascot, and the public invitation to the Board meeting suggested SCS was inspired to create an educational atmosphere based on ethics and dignity for all students. It suggested SCS was heading towards removing this mascot. And then, in what appears to be a shying away from their pro-active leadership or catering to robust pro mascot advocates, their momentum came to a stop.
It begs the question, what will it take for Saranac Community Schools to re-ignite its movement in the right direction for the students? Is Saranac Community Schools prepared to be known as the school district that did what the community wanted even though they have access to the research that shows the harmful effects of Native American sports mascots? At the time of writing, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights and The White House Initiative on American Indian and Alaska Native Education (WHIAIANE) have launched a listening tour in various states on matters of prioritized concern in education of Native American children. Offensive imagery and symbolism are an item on that agenda. All signs, even the ones Saranac Community Schools are tracking on, suggest that soon enough, Native American sports mascots will be banned. There will be no debate, no public discussion, no easing out of the sentimental attachments to the violent American history against Native Americans that seem to exist for many.
There will only be those communities that made the change of their own accord based on their ethics, professional competency, and desire to create a better world for all of our children and there will be those who had to be compelled to do the right thing through enforcement. It will be interesting to see where Saranac Community Schools SCS and the community it serves find itself in this national narrative.
Waaseyaa’sin Christine Sy is an Ojibway Anishinaabe of mixed ancestry from Bawating and Obishkikaang (Sault Ste. Marie and Lac Seul First Nation, Ontario, Canada). She is a mother, poet, writer, language and land-based learner and is presently completing a Pre-Doctoral Dissertation Fellowship in American Indian Studies at Michigan State University.