ETA: I am honored to learn that my article will be used in the academic setting:
OKLAHOMA CITY—The Educational Forum on Native American Mascots, sponsored by Oklahoma City Public Schools Native American Parent Committee, was an attempt to reach out to help community members understand why the Capital Hill mascot was being changed. An honorable intent, based on the optimistic premise that, if those who oppose the change just understood that damage caused by racist mascots, surely their perspective would change.
Sitting in the audience, it was clear that most did not come open to learning, but rather to simply register their protests, at times hatefully and disrespectfully. When panelist and OKCPS alumus Rance Weryackwe introduced himself in the Comanche language, an elderly man whispered loudly that he didn’t wish to “listen to him talk like that.” There was a fair amount of eye rolling and head shaking from change opponents when the moderator, Sarah Adams-Cornell, made a presentation about the documented harms caused by race based mascots, including the hostile learning environment created by enshrining them in educational institutions, explaining “by not changing, we are in violation of students’ civil rights.”
Only a half hour into the forum, the man who had previously mocked a panelist for speaking his language announced, loudly enough for at least my side of the room to hear, that he didn’t care what “the Indians think,” before storming out of the room in a huff. A woman in the audience laughed condescendingly when panelist Johnnie Jae Morris spoke about stereotypes and how they are foundational to many problems faced in Indian Country. Overall, most of the whispering and hateful comments were the basic “get over it” and “that’s in the past” type sentiments.
When it came time for the question and answer session, Moderator Sarah Adams-Cornell announced that no questions had been submitted on the topic of the forum, asking for questions on the issue of education and Native American mascots. A female snarled “it’s because we don’t need to be educated,” in response, and the majority of the crowd who opposed the mascot change stood up and walked out together. None asked any clarifying questions or expressed the intent to understand.
Some paused in the entryway to speak to media. Pam Townley, who graduated from Capital Hill in 1973, lamented the school board’s vote, stating “no one knew about it!” In reality, people all over the world knew about the impending vote, thanks to social media. Townley’s solution is simple: segregation. “If they don’t like what is going on at Capital Hill, then go to a Native American school, where you don’t have to worry about it.” Ironic, considering panelist Jacob Tsotigh spoke about the not too distant past, where businesses posted signs stating “no dogs or Indians allowed.” Her comments illustrate the point made by Brady Henderson that “the past cannot be divested from the present . . . It defines us.” Racism and segregation are indeed alive and well but, as Brady also said, “the past is in the present [and] change is part of the process.” Progress is possible.
Some individuals aren’t willing to allow that change, without fighting it every step of the way, however. Capital Hill alumus, 84-year-old Roy Meler, interrupted the meeting, demanding to be heard. “Instead of talking about this foolishness, we ought to be talking about education. You’re the ones stirring this up.”
When Adams Cornell spoke about bullying and ridicule faced by her children, who are part of the school district, Meler shouted “I don’t believe it!” Later, I overheard him stating to others that bullying of Native students have no connection to the mockery inherent with mascots and that the solution is simply corporal punishment against those who bully.
Meler wasn’t the only one who vented his anger so emphatically. Carrel Wilson carried on quite dramatically, ranting in the hallway for several minutes, calling the research and ideas presented by the panel “propaganda.” Carrel stated that the panel discussion was “an unbelievable performance by a group of people who are making money off this themselves,” yet gave no indication as to why or how he believes that panelists are profiting. He did, however, try to link the use of racist mascots with the state name of Oklahoma, erroneously translating it as “home of the red man”. Wilson went on to state that panelist Dr. Matthew DeSpain was incorrect as to the history of violence against Native peoples, saying that “redskins were admired. It was a term of admiration,” but failing to address the fact that the term was used in connection with bounties placed on the heads of Native Americans.
In the end, the message from the Parent Committee was summed up concisely by Johnnie Jae Morris, who said, “We’re not trying to take anything away. We’re trying to get something we can all be proud of.”
Summer Wesley is from the Choctaw Tribe of Oklahoma. She is an OU Law School Graduate and Former Tribal Attorney & Social Worker.