Time to let go of the "Redskins" mascot


“Stupid political correctness is killing us!” was one longtime local’s response after the school superintendent of Teton County, Idaho, sacked the “Redskins” as the school’s mascot. As a fifth-generation resident and Teton High graduate himself, Superintendent Monte Woolstenhulme said he figured that the move would distress some people. Yet nothing could have prepared him for the community’s fervid response.

As the head volleyball coach at Teton High School, I’ve always been bothered that I teach at one of the last remaining schools in the country to use Native American mascots. Over 40 years ago, in 1972, Stanford University, where I was a student, switched from the Indians to the Cardinals. Lois Amsterdam, Stanford’s ombudsperson, noted that the Indians name was never meant to “defile a racial group. Rather, it was a reflection of our society's retarded understanding, dulled perception and clouded vision.”

The public outcry here to the Redskin announcement was loudest on social media, and a petition signed by 410 people within 24 hours circulated to recall the decision. To put that in perspective, just 364 people total voted in last May’s school board election. Even after leaders of the local Shoshone-Bannock Tribe supported discarding the Redskin moniker, over 200 people, dressed in Redskin memorabilia, showed up at a school board meeting to demand its retention.

There was some concern about the costs to taxpayers, despite assurances that changes would only happen within existing equipment budgets over the next six years. But most people were outraged by the insinuation that the name had ever been used offensively.

“It’s our constitutional right to say whatever we want,” people argued, “and if someone is offended, then that’s their problem.” At the conclusion of that emotional school board meeting, Woolstenhulme recommended tabling a decision on the mascot name until further notice.

The Redskin debate has been one of the hottest in the simmering slew of issues in recent years. It’s what happens when one of the most conservative communities in the West gets discovered by outdoor enthusiasts and retirees, some of them liberal thinkers from different parts of the country. Some may say that Teton Valley, close to Jackson, Wyo., is like any community with growing pains, but it's not everywhere that both Glenn Beck and Widespread Panic have performed a few miles apart on the 4th of July.

These are some of the words used in letters to the editor, on social media and at backyard barbecues in recent weeks, to characterize everything from the Redskins debate to our new comprehensive land-use plan: “tyranny,” “hippie biker,” “move-in,” “ignorant,” “arrogant,” “redneck,” “bully,” “intellectually dishonest,” “polarizing,” “corrupt,” “selfish,” “tea bagger,” “unqualified crony,” “fearful,” “right-wing conspiracy,” “Agenda 21,” “village idiot,” and (this is harsh), “pretty little potty mouth.”

To be fair, most of us here live together in relative harmony. But just when I think it’s not that bad, a truck pulls up next to me while I’m dropping off my 11-year-old daughter at her 4H archery club, and a small freckled boy hops out of a side door, whose window has a bumper sticker that says, “Gorpers Suck.” For those not in the know, a gorper refers to an environmentalist or perhaps a hiker or biker.

When does someone’s freedom of speech infringe on another person’s wellbeing? When is it just plain mean and mindless to insult people you don’t know?  I just returned from a five-day team camp in Utah with 21 extraordinary, diverse volleyball players who bonded like cement on the court, under the disco ball, and along the hot highway home. We want to be champions, but to do it we know we must overlook our personal differences. It’s up to us to develop our strengths and conquer our weaknesses.

I have the utmost reverence for the past and its cherished symbols, but its time to move forward. Who we are is so much more than what we were; I can only imagine what we might become. I believe Woolstenhulme’s decision was a good-faith attempt to accept and understand another culture and set rules for effective and non-threatening communications. Now it’s up to “us” and “them” and everyone in between to decide whether united we’ll stand, or divided we’ll fall.

Sue Muncaster is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News. She is a freelance writer, coach, food activist and adventurous mom.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at betsym@hcn.org.

Robert C Short
Robert C Short Subscriber
Aug 20, 2013 01:42 PM
Here in Dowagiac, MI our high school teams are called the Chieftains and the logo was a Native American with a Sioux bonnet. As this was not appropriate it was changed with an agreement and the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi.
The new logo depicted an authentic rendition of a Potawatomi.
This can be seen by going on the web and looking up the Dowagiac High School, Dowagiac, MI
Doug Smith
Doug Smith Subscriber
Aug 20, 2013 02:52 PM
Why don't they change the name of the team to Ignorant Idaho Red Necks to better reflect the community?
Penelope Blair
Penelope Blair Subscriber
Aug 20, 2013 09:59 PM
Hmmmm, I always thought that the Indian names were used as team names in honor of the history of our Native American's courage and bravery in battle. Just goes to show that you can take anything and make it mean something bad. I think that we have carried "political correctness" way too far...no, I know that we have. Minorities have become racist against whites, and this is the way they show it. Time to do away with this silly pettiness and deal with the REAL problems in our country.
Linda D Paul
Linda D Paul Subscriber
Aug 26, 2013 06:23 PM
For those who believe “It’s our constitutional right to say whatever we want,” I guess I'm free to call them ignorant, bad-ass whores and sheep uckers. If that bothers them, it's their own problem, right?

As for Penelope's comment above, I would agree with her if the name we were talking about were something like the Teton Braves. But redskins is a derogatory name that white people foisted onto Native Americans; it is no less offensive the Nigger, Slant-eye, or Raghead__all, atrocious and demeaning terms.
Terrence Heslin
Terrence Heslin
Nov 12, 2013 01:57 PM
Last week, I never would have agreed, but now I do. Redskins is worse than a slur. Native Americans (like my wife) have a beautiful copper/brown color. "Redskins" describe the patch left after bounty hunters scalped Native Americans for pittance. Men/women/children--genocide--shameful. I heard this on NPR just last week, from an Indian Historian. It's shameful. Change. The. Name. NOW.