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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Mascot Tussle Bedevils Officials Alumni Cheer Tradition; Colville Tribe Silent Since Request

So far, it appears the Colville School District will be on its own Aug. 26 when it again takes up a request to abandon its Indian-theme mascots.

The Colville Confederated Tribes’ council hasn’t responded to the school board’s renewed plea for more discussion on the tribes’ request that the Colville High School Indians, the Colville Junior High Warriors and the Fort Spokane Middle School Chiefs get new names.

Tribal leaders have said they think their position is clear and no more discussion is needed.

Only the Colville School District is affected because the tribal government is limiting its name-change requests to schools in its traditional territory. The Nespelem School, in the heart of the Colville Indian Reservation, plans to abandon its Savages mascot this fall.

The North Central High School Indians, the Reardan High School Indians and the Spokane Indians professional baseball team are in the Spokane Tribe’s historic homeland - and the Spokane tribal council is staying out of the fray.

Recently retired North Central Principal Sandra Fink said the school has enjoyed a good relationship with the Spokane Tribe, and hasn’t been asked to change its mascot. Years ago, tribal leaders helped design the school’s Indian logo, she said.

“They were always very supportive, and their interest was more in making sure that our students have a good understanding of traditions and the culture,” Fink said.

As recently as 1994, the Colville High School Indians had a formal blessing from the Colville Tribes. Since then, though, tribal leaders became convinced that the school mascot preserves false stereotypes about native culture.

Fink said North Central High School has attempted to teach native culture through a variety of activities, including sponsorship of a powwow.

She said offensive practices, such as the Atlanta Braves’ tomahawk-chop cheer, weren’t a problem in her 22 years as a teacher and administrator at North Central. But smaller issues have come up from time to time.

Two years ago, the school’s top jazz choral group quit calling itself the Teepee Lighters. Also, Indian-logo carpeting is being eliminated as it wears out because of concerns that stepping on the symbol is disrespectful.

Fink said the school attempts to prevent future missteps by referring issues such as design of the yearbook cover to a student committee composed mostly of Native Americans.

Colville school Superintendent Rick Cole wants to avoid future misunderstandings by having a public discussion with Colville tribal leaders before changing any mascots. A number of secondary issues need to be considered, he said.

Among other things, Cole wants to know whether the tribal government wants the district to get rid of a couple of totem poles and a new $40,000 Indian-style sculpture by Chewelah artist David Govedare. Cole includes the Govedare sculpture at Colville High in a $151,000 estimate of the cost of changing mascots. Athletic uniforms account for most of the cost.

A public discussion also could soften the community resentment he anticipates if mascots are changed, Cole believes.

The magnitude of the political problem became clear at Colville High’s centennial reunion earlier this summer.

Alumni took a straw poll in which opposition to changing the school mascot was 473-18.

About 3,000 alumni still live in the area. Numbers like that can’t be ignored by school officials who need to pass levies and bond measures or just want to keep their jobs.

Even in Indian country, feelings are mixed on the issue.

Some Colville tribal members oppose asking Colville High students to quit being Indians.

Tribal member Pierre Louie, director of a highly regarded sobriety camp at Inchelium, co-sponsored a public meeting to denounce the tribal government’s position as counterproductive. But several other tribal members have publicly criticized Louie’s statements.

The Spokane Tribe’s council refuses to be drawn into the controversy.

“Basically, the tribe’s position is they believe they should not be forced to take a position on this,” tribal attorney Dave Lundgren said. “They believe that people should have to follow their own hearts on this.”

Critics of Indian-theme mascots generally make no distinction between those with clearly negative connotations and those that may be well-intentioned. But schools are much quicker to banish the former.

Colville Junior High changed its Savages mascot five years ago at the suggestion of new Principal Tom Flugel, who came from the Inchelium School (home of the Hornets) on the Colville Reservation.

In Enterprise, Ore., where Nez Perce Indians are being welcomed back as landowners after being driven out a century ago, the school board voted last month to get rid of its high school’s Savages mascot.

But the Wellpinit School in the heart of the Spokane Indian Reservation retains its Redskins mascot without controversy. Superintendent Reid Riedlinger said he was uneasy about the name when he came in 1991, but students and community members made it clear they liked the name.

“It’s just not an issue here,” he said.

The Spokane Indians baseball team also has escaped the controversy, President Andy Billig said. He attributes that to the team’s policy of not using any Native American images, much less tomahawk chops.

“We don’t want to offend anyone,” Billig said, noting the team name is a nearly century-old tradition. “If there is anyone who is offended by our name, we would love to hear from him.”

The Almira and Coulee-Hartline school districts adopted a similar philosophy when they consolidated 10 years ago and needed a new mascot. Former Rebels and Rams decided to become generic Warriors. Although the districts are in the Colville Tribes’ traditional territory, they use no Indian imagery.

In fact, Superintendent Rick Doehle said the new logo is a shield and crossbow.

Even medieval European imagery isn’t always enough to avoid controversy. The Saxon mascot of Spokane’s Ferris High School also has come under fire in recent years.

Associate Superintendent Cynthia Lambarth said the concern is not denigration of the ancient Saxon ethnic group. Rather, she said, some people consider Ferris’ Saxon logo too white, too male, too warlike.

Saxons and American Indians aren’t the only ethnic groups to be turned into school mascots. A list of Washington high school mascots, compiled in 1994, shows Native American and European groups are used in roughly equal numbers - about three dozen for each.

Scottish Highlanders, Irish, Vikings, Trojans, Spartans, Turks and Vandals - a Germanic tribe that got a permanent bad name by sacking Rome - take their place alongside Indians, Chiefs, Braves, Warriors, Redskins and Savages. Even Abraham Lincoln is a mascot.

There also are some occupational mascots such as Bombers, Pirates, Lumberjacks and Spudders - and students at a Seattle Christian school call themselves the Saints. But animals have the lion’s share of mascots.

Students at Taholah School on the Quinault Indian Reservation in Grays Harbor County mix the animal theme with tribal tradition by calling themselves the Chitwhins. That’s the Quinalt word for bears, which many Indians consider sacred.

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo

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