Shawnee Mission North faces repeated calls to replace its Native American caricature mascot

The front doors to Shawnee Mission North’s Field House // Courtesy Bartlett

Editorial notes:

This story will be updated as contacted sources reach out for comment.

*Jenny and Kelli’s names have been changed for privacy reasons. 

*Jenny is a sixth-grader at BlueJacket Flint Elementary School in Shawnee Mission School District. She lives in the same house her mother, *Kelli, grew up in. Kelli and her brother both graduated from Shawnee Mission North High School and lived on the same street as many other North graduates. Jenny will also attend North in a few years. The school is nearing its 100th anniversary and has carried its “Indian” mascot since its founding in 1922. 

In 2017, Glenna Wallace, chief of the Eastern Shawnee Tribe of Oklahoma, rescinded the tribe’s permission that was given to SMSD to use the Indian as their mascot back in 1992. In a recent article from The Star, Wallace said the Eastern Shawnee Tribe eventually learned it did not have a connection to Kansas or Johnson County. 

“It is simply inaccurate history,” Wallace told The Star. “What was intended as an honor is no longer considered to be an honor. And I think it’s time they recognize that.”

The Eastern Shawnee tribe is one of three federally recognized Shawnee tribes. There is no documented proof that the other two Shawnee tribes, the Absentee Shawnee and the Cheyenne tribe, have ever given permission to SMSD for use of the mascot. 

North has yet to respond accordingly. 

In July, a petition was created by North alumna Amy Hastings titled, “Change the SMN Mascot by the School’s 100th Anniversary.” The call to action questions why a school that states the need to address racism in its Strategic and Non-Discrimination policies has yet to abolish its mascot. The petition has since received over 3,500 signatures.

After the petition surfaced, SMN alumni came together to research how the high school’s mascot came to be. “People keep saying this is honoring someone? Well, I don’t think in 1922 they probably put it there as a form of honoring because they didn’t even have native or Black people attending the school,” said Kelli in an interview with the Pitch. This project blossomed into members of the group being assigned to study one of the 574 federally recognized Native American tribes before sharing their findings at the next meeting. 

The group, self-named the “Truth Squad,” would meet every week at a local park. It was Jenny’s job to watch her younger sister during these meetings, but before long she was helping her mom with research.

“I saw my mom doing a lot of the work… bringing home stacks of books to look through. She asked me to help eventually because I just kind of watched her all the time,” said Jenny. “So she brought home this big stack of yearbooks. And she asked me to mark them with the things that I thought were offensive. And it was crazy the things I found in there.”

One of the things that Jenny found was a reenactment of a lynching that happened in front of SMN, with white men dressed in hoods and a student in blackface. Shocked, she showed the image to her mom in tears. The yearbook photo sparked a serious conversation between the mother and daughter. Kelly drew on a quote from William Faulkner to help Jenny better understand: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

“We talked about the notion that just because something happened in the past, that doesn’t mean it’s over,” said Kelly. “It doesn’t mean it’s resolved.”

As Jenny learned more through researching with her mom and the truth squad, she was inspired to become further involved in making the mascot change happen. She began writing letters to ask for people’s support. Her efforts have not gone unnoticed. She has received 38 responses. Some of these individuals include Gilbert Nichols and Don Nieto, co-presidents of the National Center for Indigenous American Cultures, Christine Campbell, executive director of the Region VII American Indian Council, Gaylene Crouser, executive director of the KC Indian Center, as well as siblings who attend elementary school in SMSD and are descendants of the Chickasaw Nation. While some of these response letters are addressed to Jenny, thanking her for the attention she is bringing to the issue, others directly address Heather Ousley, president of the Shawnee Mission School district board. These responses urge Ousley on the importance of the issue. 

Jenny has put these letters into packets and given them to board members before the past two board meetings. Board president Ousley did not respond for comment regarding the situation.

Most recently, Jenny received a response from Christina Haswood, representative-elect of the Kansas House of Representatives for District 10 and a member of the Navajo Nation. In her letter, Haswood recalls playing against Shawnee Mission North when she was on Lawrence High School’s basketball team. Lawrence had about 6 Native women on their team at the time. “Before the game started they did a pregame “chant’ where they did the hand over the mouth action that is stereotypically associated with Native Americans…We then headed back in the locker room to talk about the game plan but us Natives were uncomfortable of what we witnessed,” wrote Haswood. “At that time and at that age, we did not know exactly why our race and culture was being mocked like that in front of us, but we knew it was wrong.”

Haswood closed the letter by stating, ”I am more than happy to present this as public comment at your next board meeting and share my personal trauma.”

SMSD Board meetings are where action and attention have been further called for North’s mascot change. 

SMN is fixed at zero until the mascot change is made // Photo credits Bartlett

In the most recent board meeting on Nov. 16, the district’s goal to“relentlessly create a fully unified, equitable, and inclusive culture,” was presented to all in attendance.

At the start of the meeting, comments were made by parents, teachers, alumni about the mascot change. Members of the community who are from Native tribes also spoke on the need for change. 

“Playing sports against your school and watching you just butcher and destroy someone’s culture that you say you honor is appalling,” said a member of a federal tribe who attended Lawrence High School and recently moved to the area. “The fact that we constantly have to come up here, to different places, fight Washington’s football team, fight Kansas City’s football team, fight this. We’re exhausted. Listen to us. We’re telling you it’s not an honor. That should’ve been your wake up call. We shouldn’t even be having this conversation because it should’ve already been taken care of.” 

By the close of the meeting, the board stated that the issue would be turned over to SMSD’s policy committee. After reaching out for comment to Sarah Goodburn, the head of the policy committee and a member of SMSD’s board of education she gave the following response:

“The policy committee did take up the new policy on mascots at our Thursday, December 3rd meeting. It will be placed on the agenda for the Monday, December 21st meeting for a first read. No action will be taken that night. That gives our board members and members of the community time and an opportunity to weigh in with their comments, suggestions,” wrote Goodburn. “The policy committee will meet again on Thursday, January 7th to discuss any revisions to the policy. Barring any issues, it will be placed on the meeting agenda for Monday, January 25th for the second read and action by the board. The agenda for Monday’s meeting goes live, I believe, this Friday in BoardDocs. You should be able to view the policy at that time.” 

The agenda for the meeting is not on BoardDocs.

Regardless of the agenda, Cody Hall, a member of the Oceti Sakowin (Sioux Nation) will be speaking at the next board meeting on Dec. 21. His partner is a North graduate.

The Pitch spoke with Hall regarding the importance of this change as a Native person.

“While it’s an issue that that has to do with non-native people, you’re using a moniker of us and so you need to hear our perspective of what that does to the psyche,” said Hall. Hall is a Lakota pipe carrier and the son of the tribe’s chief. He was also a member of Red Warrior Camp and was heavily involved in the peaceful water protests to stop the Dakota Access pipeline

Hall spoke on the cheap excuse of teams and schools justifying the use of mascots as a means to honor Native people. “We never sought honorship. We have our own ways, within our own culture that we have honors. And, quite frankly, we’re not looking for the national broad scale of put me on a pedestal,” said Hall. “We’re just like anybody else. We want to live life and for you to see us but know our perspective and our narrative. Just hear our plight, hear the stories.”

Hall has carried the scars of growing up mistreated as a Native, and would often be called chief and savage. He recalled a conversation from elementary school when a friend didn’t understand why Hall, who dreamed of playing in the NFL, wouldn’t want to play for the Washington Redskins or the Kansas City Chiefs. Hall has continued to have conversations like this throughout his entire life. 

“There are people that know more of America’s history than the actual Americans themselves. I’m 43 and I have daughters, and I don’t want them to be growing up sitting there saying, “Hey, Dad,  is that a reference to you? Is that image supposed to be a view on your people?” I don’t want that. As a child, he thought racism would be gone by the time he reached adulthood. “The hard truth, it’s going to be here in my lifetime and in my girls’ lifetime. It’s so American, that we do it without really acknowledging that we do it,” said Hall. “That’s how American it is. So we need some people that have our heads out there and say, ‘Okay, enough is enough.”’

He stressed the importance of implementing education on Native American history in the school-wide curriculum. “I’m all about the change and the education of it, the understanding. Because right now, there is no education. The Shawnee Mission School Board doesn’t have that. And I surely hope that they’re willing to accept a change. We need to sit down, and need to be willing to open your mind and your eyes and your heart to understand what has transpired all these years.”

In addition to speaking at Johnson County Community College, Hall has also spoken with the Kansas City Chiefs about the offensiveness of their mascot. While the Cleveland Indians just dropped their mascot, the Chiefs continue to hold onto theirs. 

Last month, SMSD’s Nieman Elementary changed their mascot from the Indians to the Foxes. This was done independently, with the decision process involving students and the community. While Neimann’s principal reached out to the assistant superintendent of elementary schools in the district for approval, the change was ultimately STUCO led.

Emily, another alumna heavily involved in the research group, has used her mother, who is an interlibrary loan specialist, as a helpful source. This has allowed the truth squad to piece elements together through the Kansas Historical Society. Through this research, the group discovered that Shawnee Mission North was built a few blocks from the Quaker Mission that closed in the 1870s. The building wasn’t destroyed until 1917 and Shawnee Mission North was built a few years later. “It’s just mind-blowing to think that the land stood for completely wiping out the culture of the people. And then like five years later, they built a building, where all the white students came back in and we’re like, “oh, we’re gonna wear headdresses.”’

The Quakers have since renounced what their mission stood for and have apologized and worked to do what they can to bring awareness to the issue and why it was wrong. Emily echoed Hall’s push to implement Native American history into the SMSD’s education system. “I made it out of the school district without ever knowing a lot of these things. So I think it’s really important to have a class. I mean, that’s the easiest thing,” said Emily. 

Push for change has also come with bringing attention to the offensive imagery on spirit wear. 

Spiritwear generally relies on offensive imagery // Photo courtesy of SMN Booster Club website

Reed Fagan, an alumni of Shawnee Mission East has taught intro to engineering and robotics for over 3 years at SMN. He recalled a conversation he had with a fellow faculty member and the principal that happened about two years ago. The principal was receptive when Reed and his colleague asked him to reconsider the use of inappropriate imagery on spirit wear, such as t-shirts, sweatshirts, and hats. They asked him to pass the message onto the administrative staff and the booster club. Though Indian imagery has not been fully eliminated, Reed said it has been further neutralized. He feels that the mascot change is long overdue. “I’ve had to go through my spirit wear, unfortunately, get rid of the few North shirts that I have.”

Current students and alumni have been encouraged to send in their offensive spiritwear to SMSD Superintendent Mike Fulton, according to Emily. Superintendent Fulton did not comment on being asked about the situation of changing North’s mascot. 

Jenny continues to write letters in hopes of receiving more responses. “Some people may think this is a bad time to change the mascot because of COVID-19,” said Jenny, “but I think now is a great time because they could start getting rid of the stickers on the football helmets or the images on the jerseys for their one-hundredth anniversary.”

She recently had a conversation with board member Jessica Hembree. While they talked on the phone, Hembree purchased books Jenny recommended to her for her and her children to read on Native American history. Jenny likes how children’s books make things easier to understand.

The National Congress of American Indians held its annual conference last month. Resolution PDX 20-042, “Support for the Elimination of Race-Based Native Logos, Mascots, and Names,” was passed. As the country continues to deal with its racial reckoning, will be Native Americans be included in this conversation? How long will it take for SMSD to see that change must happen “to create a fully unified, equitable, and inclusive culture?”

Categories: Politics