Lingering stereotypes spoken here

  • Wallowa County Chieftain editor Rick Swart

    Rich Rautenstrauch photo
  • The old logo

 

"God gives the heavy loads to the big horses," says Rick Swart. He should know - he's got a heavy load.

Today, at the age of 40, Richard W. Swart may be the most embattled journalist in Oregon. As editor of the Wallowa County Chieftain, a 114-year-old weekly that has been in his family for three generations, he has turned the town of Enterprise, pop. 1,900, where the paper is headquartered, into Oregon's capital of high dudgeon.

How did he do it? By advocating scrapping the high school's 71-year-old team mascot and logo, the "Savages," on grounds that it offends Native Americans - especially the Nez Perce who once occupied this beautiful valley.

Swart dresses Eastern Oregon style in a plaid woolen logger's jacket and jeans. He owns all the accoutrements of a hunting and fishing enthusiast. A huge bighorn sheep trophy at his home in Lostine offers testimony to his regular-guyness and rural values. His paper is consistent with his dress and hobbies. He takes on environmentalists whenever they attack logging, ranching or irrigated agriculture.

But to his local critics, he is a bully, a troublemaker, and a sensationalist who incites controversy to increase readership. His anti-Savages crusade has stirred editorial comment in The Oregonian, articles in The Seattle Times, and put him in the thick of a national debate over team nicknames.

It also has made him a pariah in his community.

"Mr. Swart is so high and mighty," fumes Audry Osburn, a sixth-generation county resident. "From a small-town perspective, it's important that he not get any more egotistical than he is."

The idea of doing away with the Savages came to Swart last summer, when the Bonneville Power Administration deeded over to the Nez Perce a 10,500-acre ranch along the breaks of Joseph Creek Canyon (HCN, 7/7/97).

"At long last century-old wounds are beginning to heal," he wrote. "Whites are beginning to acknowledge their remorse for expulsion of Chief Joseph and his followers ... and the Nez Perce are beginning to express their willingness to forgive their former enemies."

It's a tricky issue for Swart because the Chieftain itself is named after Chief Joseph and bears his solemn visage on every cover. "He (Swart) is capitalizing on the Indian image," notes Osburn. "If you live in a glass house, you better not throw stones."

But to Swart, the Chieftain logo presents a positive image, whereas "savagery" has always meant the opposite of civilization. He also has seen racism first-hand:

"When I was a kid, it was sport to go down to Mel's Tavern during Chief Joseph Days and beat up a few Indians."

In July, after emotional appeals from both white and Native American activists, the school board voted unanimously to do away with "Savages," ordering students to come up with a new name.

Instead, Enterprise High student body president Sarah Gerner protested the decision as high-handed and misinformed. A straw poll she conducted showed that 183 out of 195 students preferred to keep "Savages."

Osburn, the mother of three school-age children, helped form a political action committee to oppose the change, threatening to recall the school board if it didn't reverse itself.

In October, the school board backed down, voting 3-2 to allow students to keep the name if they couldn't come up with an alternative. All the same, Swart eliminated the name in the Chieftain's local sports coverage, substituting "E-town" and "Black 'n Red."

Death threats and shunning

The Chieftain, located in a one-story building just off Enterprise's main drag, provides a lively forum for such beefs. But Swart's crusading - especially on the "Savages" issue - has exposed his whole family to attack.

His brother Don Jr., a school board member who stuck to his guns despite the threatened recall, received a death threat. His wife, Cheryl, the Chieftain's advertising director, got an earful from advertisers. His mother, Gail, a retired music teacher, was surprised to find herself cold-shouldered by longtime acquaintances at a football game.

"It seems like in Enterprise, if you don't agree, you can't be friends," she says.

But Swart shrugs off the public outcry. The Chieftain is profitable, he says, and, unlike many country weeklies, is holding on to its circulation of 4,200. He firmly believes the majority of Wallowans "don't go along with stereotyping and recognize it's time for change." "

At first glance, Rick Swart appears to be the proverbial chip off the old block - that block being his maternal grandfather, Gwen T. Coffin, who died two years ago. Rick's father, Don, who took over as editor in 1972, believed in keeping civic waters calm. Not Grandpa Coffin.

An attorney who had worked in the same Springfield, Ill., law firm as Abraham Lincoln once did, Coffin bought the paper in 1941 and soon ran afoul of local sentiment by denouncing the internment of Japanese Americans. That was "foreign to our conceptions of fair play and orderly process," he wrote.

Half a century would pass before the rest of the country came around to his point of view. Meanwhile, his wife, Gladys, had to cut his hair because the local barber wouldn't.

On a bright October afternoon, in the breakfast nook of the two-story wood-frame house she has lived in since she arrived in Enterprise almost six decades ago, Gladys serves her grandson a satisfying lunch of homemade split pea soup, cheese and crackers, cake and ice cream. Rick is the family's standard-bearer now, and she supports him as vigorously as she once backed her husband - even Rick's unpopular stand on the school mascot.

"We all agree it's time for a change," Gladys says.

Swart first went to work for the Chieftain at age 8, shoveling snow off the sidewalk for 32 cents an hour. Then he delivered papers, walking around town with a stack in his arms.

At holiday dinner gatherings, Swart absorbed Gwen Coffin's war stories. "Gwen had a profound impact on me with his environmental, social, and cultural issues," he says. "I share his empathy for minorities, for the downtrodden - perhaps to a fault."

Now Swart is establishing his own style. Where Coffin was courtly, polished and aloof, his grandson is personal and blunt. His opinion pieces sound less like Gwen Coffin than like the fiery "frontier journalism" practiced by West Coast editors in the 19th century.

In recent editorials he slammed Enterprise teachers and coaches for "pouring gasoline on the fire" of the mascot controversy and accused Savages defender John Osburn, who had intimated the possibility of a free speech lawsuit, of "making threats."

That didn't go over very well with Osburn's wife, Audry. "I know a lot of people who don't read his editorials," " she says. "They buy the paper for the Safeway ads." Even Swart's mother wishes he would sometimes "say it more softly."

"Idiotic mascot"

Swart sits on the board of the Nez Perce Interpretive Center Coalition. The coalition has purchased a 160-acre site overlooking the town of Wallowa for powwow grounds and permanent displays of Indian art and artifacts.

He says his anti-Savages campaign relates closely to the Interpretive Center effort, one of half-a-dozen significant cooperative ventures under way in the region. "We've got all this positive energy going," he notes. "Why not divest ourselves of that idiotic mascot?"

To Swart, sacrificing a logo that stands in the way of racial reconciliation is consistent with his broader vision of the county's future. "How we are perceived by the outside world is important to that future, especially now that tourism is an important part of the economy." "

It also jibes with his hopes for his family. "I certainly don't want my boy to be a 'Savage.' "

But last month, Enterprise High students voted overwhelmingly to keep the name. They also decided to scrap the Indian image in favor of an axe-wielding figure that looks like a cross between Hulk Hogan and a wolverine.

Swart thinks the compromise makes the situation worse. "Before, it was an innocent hand-me-down. Now it's something they are consciously choosing - a premeditated put-down."

Because of dissatisfaction with the new logo on the part of several teachers and the student body president, who think it looks slightly satanic, the school is sponsoring a contest to come up with an alternative. Students will vote again on May 20.

Swart thinks an alternative that reduces the offending name to an adjective, such as "Enterprise Savage Pride," might be acceptable. Short of that, he intends to continue his editorial crusade.

For even with a new logo, he argues, "The old image is still there in people's minds. It makes sense for the community to cut its losses and start over."

Tom Bates writes profiles for The Oregonian's Change & Values team in Portland, Oregon.

You can contact ...

The Wallowa County Chieftain at 541/426-4567 or by e-mail, [email protected]

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