After years of criticism, Vancouver Public Schools at last appears poised to retire the chieftain mascot at Columbia River High School.
In a workshop Tuesday, the Board of Directors indicated their support for retiring the image of a Native American chief after hearing from members of local tribes. Students and alumni have long campaigned for its removal without success.
“It’s too often a slur,” said Mike Iyall, former vice chairman and current tribal council member of the Cowlitz Indian Tribe. “It’s an idea that’s time has passed.”
The board will have to vote formally, and could do so at its next meeting. Members indicated, however, a shared desire to retire the mascot. School board president Wendy Smith said, after hearing from many people that the mascot is offensive and hurtful, that there’s “no cause to keep it in place.”
“We shouldn’t be making Sambos of anyone’s heritage,” school board member Camara Banfield said, comparing the mascot with the racist caricature of Black people that once pervaded popular culture.
Kat McAllister, 19, is an alumna of Columbia River High School, a member of the Entiat tribe of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation. She also has Hopi, Blackfoot and Flathead heritage. She and her sister both advocated for the replacement of the mascot as students, but McAllister said she felt their frustrations weren’t taken seriously by administrators.
“This could have been fixed many, many years ago,” McAllister said. “It took a long time of understanding and knowledge to solve this problem.”
The mascot has been a source of contention for decades. The Washington State Board of Education adopted a resolution in 1993 calling on districts to reevaluate their use of Native American imagery in mascots, reaffirming that position in 2012.
Yet in 1994 and again in 2019, students voted overwhelmingly to keep the image.
McAllister said the issues with the mascot did not end at the stereotypical image of a Plains Indian with a “crooked nose and wide-set face.”
As recently as her freshman and sophomore year, students participated in rituals like the tomahawk chop, raising and whacking their arms in the air to simulate a chopping motion with an ax, as well as cheerleading dances meant to imitate traditional Native American dances.
“This is a character of a stereotypical depiction of a Native,” she said.
Civil rights protests across the United States have prompted a reexamining of names and mascots steeped in racist history. The Washington NFL franchise retired its mascot this summer, but has not yet selected a replacement.
Sam Robinson, vice chair of the Chinook Nation, and Nathan Reynolds, interim director for the Cowlitz Indian Tribe culture department, also urged the district to replace the mascot. The district did not discuss alternatives to the chieftain mascot, but Iyall encouraged members to borrow from Clark County’s history to inspire its next steps.
“It’s not like you’re painted into a corner and there’s only one important thing that’s happened in Vancouver,” he said.