After 90 years, Teton High School retires its controversial Native American mascot

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After 90 years, the Teton Redskins are gone.

The school board for the Teton School District voted 4-1 Tuesday night to retire the high school’s controversial nickname with the stipulation no taxpayer money goes toward the removal process.

Two of Idaho’s largest Native American tribes, the Shoshone-Bannock and the Nez Perce, have both publicly urged the school to change the mascot, citing the word’s offensive definition by major dictionaries and its use as a racial slur.

“We are very pleased that the school board listened to the tribes in removing the Redskins name,” Shoshone-Bannock spokeswoman Randy’L Teton told the Idaho Statesman in a text message Tuesday night.

Teton School District Superintendent Monte Woolstenhulme testified at Tuesday’s meeting it would cost nearly $30,000 to replace the school’s uniforms and remove Redskin signage around the Driggs high school near the Idaho-Wyoming border.

Board member Mary Mello suggested the district could fund raise to pay for the changes. The school district had a $14.5 million budget for the 2018-19 school year. The $30,000 would have amounted to less than 1 percent of district’s budget, but board members didn’t want to use any taxpayer money on an issue that has split the Teton County community for years.

Ben Kearsley was the only board member to vote against retiring the mascot, citing a desire for the board to take its time and continue to receive input from the community.

“I do feel there’s a way to come to a compromise,” Kearsley said during the online broadcast of the board meeting. “But by moving too fast, we remove some of the voices we’ve heard and close the door on our community. We’ll leave voices behind, and that’s the greatest community cost.”

The board did not name a replacement mascot Tuesday, leaving that up to a community committee it will create at its next meeting at 6 p.m. July 30 at Driggs Elementary.

After Teton’s decision, 11 Idaho high schools still use Native American mascots, including the Indians (Pocatello, Preston, Buhl, Shoshone, Nezperce), the Savages (Salmon, Salmon River), the Warriors (Meridian, Kootenai) and the Braves (Boise). The high school on the Fort Hall Reservation, home to the Shoshone-Bannock, is also known as the Sho-Ban Chiefs.

Salmon and Salmon River have officially abandoned the use of Native American images but still use the Savages as their nicknames.

Redskins debate

The vote to remove the Redskin name comes after years of debate. Teton Superintendent Monte Woolstenhulme first unilaterally ordered the high school to change the mascot in 2013 but relented to public pressure that summer.

The issue returned in March when Victor resident Stephanie Crockett brought it back before the school board. The board put off any decision until the summer so it could focus on year-end budgets, but the issue roiled the Eastern Idaho community in the meantime.

A student council poll found 67 percent of the high school’s students want to keep the mascot, two student groups walked out of class this spring in support of the Redskins name and a “Save the Redskins” Facebook swelled to 1,100 members.

Meanwhile, the student newspaper vowed to change its name, “The War Cry,” in support of Native Americans. And both sides invited Indian groups that supported their side to Driggs.

A July 8 school board meeting with 200 residents lasted six hours as 61 testified on the issue, 33 for a change, 27 to keep the mascot and one offering no opinion.

“A lot has been said about whether it is or isn’t racist,” said Cameron Butler, a student at Teton High at the July 8 meeting. “But in my opinion, Native Americans and native people have told us many, many times that they do not feel honored by this mascot.

“… Since the people we are trying to honor so much and feel so strongly that we need to help have stated they don’t like the mascot and they’d like us to change it, we should listen to them.”

Those who want to keep the Redskin name said it was intended to honor, not deride, Native Americans. Janine Jolley, one of the administrators of the “Save the Redskins” Facebook page, said at the July 8 meeting she’s tired of being called a racist by outsiders.

“We have an awesome symbol of pride and honor and power,” Jolley said. “It was never a racial slur to be a redskin. We wanted to be as brave, as fearless and as strong as they were. We are keeping the memories of those who were here actually alive.”

A vote to change the mascot

The board delayed a vote July 8 to offer the community an informal work session with the board Tuesday. Each board member rotated between five groups of randomly assigned residents for back-and-forth discussions. After two hours, the board returned and debated another two hours before voting to remove the nickname.

Driggs resident Adam Berry cautioned the board against a vote Tuesday.

“All of us agreed a vote tonight would be a disservice to this community,” Berry said at the meeting. “It would only drive a deeper wedge in the valley. … We as a community are not in a place to compromise. It’s too fresh of a wound.”

But others urged the board to finally vote and put the issue to rest, once and for all.

“I don’t know what more information there is to hear on this,” Driggs resident Peter McKellar said. “There have been years of conversation about this and years of research that has gone into this. I really worry if we delay that the riff will get bigger.”

Mello pushed for a vote to remove the Redskin name Tuesday, followed by a community-driven process to find a replacement. She relented to board member Jake Kunz’s request for a pledge to not use any taxpayer money, earning a 4-1 decision.

Board chair Chris Isaacson emphasized before the vote that none of the board members considered the county’s residents racists.

“I don’t think there’s anybody on this board that doesn’t believe that (the Redskin mascot) was not done in respect and love and caring for the people who lived here in this valley,” she said. “We don’t want to lose that.”

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