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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Students at Wellpinit, overwhelmingly Native American school district, vote to keep ‘redskins’ as mascot

Students, faculty and supporters line the parade route on Agency Loop Read in Wellpinit as they await the high school basketball team Friday to pass by on a flatbed trailer celebrating their school’s first State 1B championship.  (COLIN MULVANY/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

WELLPINIT, Wash. – After most school districts across the state have moved away from Native American mascots, students at a school on the Spokane Indian Reservation have decided to keep theirs: the Wellpinit Redskins.

The Spokane Tribal Council passed a resolution last month supporting the students’ wish to keep the name.

“The students are the ones who carry the mascot,” said Carol Evans, chairwoman of the Spokane Tribe. “They should be the ones to decide.”

A 2021 law introduced by Rep. Debra Lekanoff, D-Bow, a Tlingit tribe member, requires school districts in Washington to stop using Native American names, symbols and images as school mascots, logos or team names. An exception is allowed if the school district is in or near a reservation and the tribe approves.

The state superintendent’s office in 2021 estimated 32 schools in the state had Native American mascots. According to the office, 29 have requested state funding to assist in a mascot review process, including Wellpinit.

Most have changed their mascot or modified their logo. In Eastern Washington, Colville, Reardan and North Central high schools all changed their “Indians” mascot since the legislation was introduced.

The only other school in the state with the name Redskins was Port Townsend, which changed to Redhawks in 2013.

Students surveyed at Wellpinit’s high school and middle school last year overwhelmingly voted to keep the mascot.

At Wellpinit High School, 87% of students are Native American, as reported to the Department of Education. The number of students who self-identify as Native American is likely higher, principal Laina Walker said.

During a parade Friday celebrating the recent boys state 1B basketball championship, the crowd proudly chanted “Redskins power.”

Smokey Abrahamson, a senior and a member of the winning basketball team, wants to keep the mascot.

“It’s a very powerful word for us,” he said. “People say it’s a bad term, but when we use it at our school, I don’t think it is. It’s used in a different way.”

In winning the state championship this year, he said they represented that name positively.

His teammate, senior David Wynecoop, had mixed feelings, given the history behind the word. If they were to change the mascot, he suggested Children of the Sun, which is the meaning of Spokane.

Minor league baseball team Spokane Indians has a partnership with the tribe, which worked with the team to rebrand in 2006 to be more respectful and inclusive. The team’s home jerseys spell out Spokane in Salish: Sp’q’n’i?.

Before the tribal council resolution, the Wellpinit school board had been preparing to change the mascot this spring. Part of the discussion involved research showing negative mental health effects on Native American students.

Some community members spoke against the mascot at board meetings last year.

George Teters, a Spokane Tribe member who grew up in Spokane, said the mascot is racist by definition.

Merriam-Webster defines redskin “as an insulting and contemptuous term for an American Indian.”

He said the word historically referred to bounties paid for the scalps of Native Americans. The word would be used alongside bear skin or beaver skin.

“This is part of a long history of genocide,” he said.

Teters said he understands the community’s attachment to the name since people grew up with it but there is a lack of education about it.

Evans said the council worked with the district to educate the students on the history of the term before collecting their feedback.

Warren Seyler, a historian of the Spokane Tribe, gave presentations discussing both sides of the issue.

Wellpinit has used the Redskins mascot at least since 1952.

“Back then,” Seyler said, “there was no negative connotations to the word.”

In 1939 and 1940, the Washington Redskins – the Washington, D.C., football team that was long the target of many activists and now rebranded as the Washington Commanders – had training camps at Eastern Washington University and Windemere Resort in Spokane. A photograph from that time shows a Spokane Tribe member, Willie Andrews, wearing a headdress and standing next to one of the Washington Redskins who also wore a headdress.

Seyler speculates that is when the idea for the Wellpinit mascot was planted.

But he pointed to examples of Spokane chiefs in the 1800s referring to tribal members as “red fellows” or “red men.”

“Red was just a color of us. You’re the white people, and we’re the red people,” Seyler said.

On the other hand, he said many mascots are caricatures or stereotypes that do not portray Native Americans as human beings.

Seyler also said the word “redskin” has taken on new meaning and became more offensive in recent years. Now it is sometimes defined as “the color of skin as blood drips down it.”

Today, “the horrible history goes along with this name also,” Seyler said.

To others in the community, it’s still a name of pride and honor.

School board President Terry Payne said it was never derogatory to her.

“My kids all grew up Redskins,” she said. “I’m glad that we are able to keep it.”

Evans said perhaps students of a future generation will want to change it.

“If it is going to change,” she said, “they should lead the charge.”

James Hanlon's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.