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Jan. 25, 2021

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Vancouver Public Schools retires chieftain from Columbia River, Minnehaha schools

Mascot criticized by Native students and alumni as culturally insensitive

By , Columbian Education Reporter
Published:

The Vancouver Public Schools Board of Directors unanimously voted Tuesday to retire the chieftain name and mascot at Columbia River High School and Minnehaha Elementary School.

It was a vote that seemed all but certain headed into the school board meeting, as board members last month expressed their desire to end the use of the image of a Native American chief in a feathered headdress. Local tribal leaders urged the school board to stop using the image, and more than 1,700 people signed a petition this summer opposing its continued use.

“As a River parent, I recognize the deep sense of pride that is prevalent at River,” director Kathy Decker said. “A River experience is truly an amazing one. This will not change because of a mascot.”

The mascot has been a source of controversy for decades, spotlighted by renewed national conversations about racial justice. 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.

In 1994 and again in 2019, students voted overwhelmingly to keep the image.

Anastasia McAllister is a member of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation whose family has long spoken out against the chieftain mascot. McAllister graduated from Columbia River High School in 2013.

“The mascot does not honor me or my family,” McAllister said. “The mascot does not honor my community or the Native presence in the lower Columbia River.”

Some alumni and former school staff protested the resolution, urging the district to preserve the chieftain mascot. A counter-petition drew more than 800 signatures.

“Chieftain pride is real and runs deep,” said Marlon Gorden, a Columbia River graduate. “It started I still feel it as strong today as an adult. It becomes your identity for life. It’s who you are.”

Others suggested retiring the mascot would erase Native American history in the region. Philip Harju, the newly sworn-in chair of the Cowlitz Indian Tribe, rebuked that. He called on the district to invest in curriculum that dives into the history of local tribes.

“People do not understand their history and the geography of the area,” he said.

School board president Wendy Smith, a graduate of Columbia River High School, and acknowledged the anger and disappointment some alumni feel at replacing the chieftain. However, she said it’s unacceptable for the district to keep a mascot that has and continues to harm students.

“If some students, any students, feel alienated from their school community, then it is not the right mascot for their school,” board president Wendy Smith said.

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