“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.