Keith Blau is proud to be a Columbia River High School student, and, in eight weeks, will be a proud graduate as part of the Class of 2021.
He’s also a proud leader as the school’s student body president. In a school year filled with challenges and changes for so many, Blau has doubled-down on efforts to ensure the high school experience is as positive as possible, given the circumstances of an unconventional year of learning.
“I know how hard this has been for everyone and I want to help make that transition for everyone as easily as possible,” he said. “The biggest thing is to make sure students are comfortable, and making sure they’re happy in school and they’re proud to be a student at Columbia River.”
And, there’s one more thing Blau and student body vice president Luci Ianello want for this year’s nearly 1,200 students: to be united as a school through change by selecting a new mascot in a time when students haven’t been all together in more than a year.
This week, Columbia River’s student body is voting on its future when it chooses Captains or Rapids as the school’s new nickname. These are the final two choices, pared down from a list of more than 700 suggestions submitted by students, staff, alumni and community members after the school board voted unanimously in September to retire the long-standing Chieftain name.
“We really feel like this year,” Ianello said, “in a time when students need it most, we are working on bringing everyone back together and reuniting everyone with a new mascot is going to do that.”
Student voting began Tuesday, and the school expects to announce the new nickname Friday. Principal Alex Otoupal, who headed the mascot transition team task force, said it’s important to let students’ voices be heard throughout the selection process, and especially, the final vote.
That’s also how it was done nearly 60 years ago.
Four months before Columbia River first opened its doors Sept. 4, 1962, more than 800 incoming students voted for Chieftains as their nickname and purple and gold as the color schemes, according to Columbian archives. River initially served as a junior and senior high school while construction of the district’s fourth junior high – Jason Lee – was ongoing. River’s first graduating class came in 1965.
In May 1962, a student committee of representatives from junior high feeder schools and four nearby elementaries – Sarah J. Anderson, Hazel Dell, Lake Shore and Salmon Creek – submitted nine mascot and nine color schemes choices. Chieftains beat out Captains, Sailors, Pilots, Explorers, Cougars, Falcons, Warriors and Indians. Purple and gold color schemes won out over several color combinations including red and green, blue and gray, and red, white and blue.
Blau supports the final decision renaming the mascot being a student-only decision once again.
“It’s a very unique opportunity to have such a big role, and play a huge role in what the future of our school is going to look like,” he said.
The mascot makeover comes at a time when social justice movements have prompted reexaminations of insensitive names, logos and mascots. This week the state Legislature gave final approval to a bill banning the use of Native American names, symbols and images as school mascots, logos and team names at most public schools.
Before that, though, came change for good. In 2019, a group of River students attempted to replace the mascot, but it wasn’t until a student-led petition last spring got the attention of the Vancouver school board. In September, the board voted unanimously to retire the nickname, also used by Minnehaha Elementary.
A new chapter
Vancouver Public Schools last reviewed River’s mascot in 1994 after the Washington State Board of Education adopted a resolution for districts to evaluate the use of Native American imagery in schools. Students chose to keep its mascot, on the grounds the name represented tradition, leadership and respect for Native Americans.
That’s also how the school’s current leaders view Chieftains, but Blau and Ianello understand why it is viewed as culturally insensitive. Regardless if Captains or Rapids is selected, they see the nickname as a new chapter of pride and honor while not forgetting its past.
“People were worried that if we change the mascot, we are going to lose some of that tradition,” Blau said. “We can move forward, but also continue the tradition with the same values the school has had. There’s no reason why that won’t be continued no matter what is picked.
“The expectations of our school are still the same.”
Vancouver welcomed freshmen for twice-a-week in-person instruction March 8, and a week later, the remaining three grades for hybrid learning. It’s the first time since March 13, 2020, the school was buzzing with hundreds of students.
So how do you rally students’ excitement around change without traditional school events such as assemblies and pep rallies? With heavy social media campaigns, and more recently, posters plastered throughout the school. Rapids was a top choice of students among the initial several hundred suggestions. Captains, one of the original final choices in 1962, joined Purple Tide and River, a no-mascot option favored by alumni, as the four school board-approved options. Students pared down the choices to Captains and Rapids two weeks ago.
Voting on the final two choices concludes Thursday. Blau and Ianello said they feel privileged that these classes of River students are part of a historic process – and another chapter of school history at a place that prides itself on a tradition of excellence.
And that’s another chapter they’re proud to be part of as students at Columbia River High School.
“We’re River,” Ianello said. “We’re still Columbia River, no matter what. All we have is another thing to represent us and to represent the great kids we have here.”