Why stop the renaming of Native American school mascots that don't reflect who we are now?

That progressive plan to replace offensive mascot names in Hillsborough schools is on pause. Sue Carlton says school officials are missing a teachable moment.
Hillsborough County School Board member Steve Cona says a proposal to rename several Native American school mascots — including at his former middle school — has hit him 'hard.' [Cona campaign]
Hillsborough County School Board member Steve Cona says a proposal to rename several Native American school mascots — including at his former middle school — has hit him 'hard.' [Cona campaign]
Published June 9

What an important history lesson this was going to be for the kids, one about progress and respect.

Until the school board hit the brakes.

It was practically a done deal: Hillsborough County was working to change the mascots at a half-dozen middle and elementary schools — and tweak traditions at two high schools — in the interest of a more respectful tone toward Native American culture.

This was done after months of meetings between a parent advisory committee from the American Indian community and school officials.

Those officials made a decisive statement in their announcement last month, which said in part:

The current mascots do not respect every culture and every person in our communities. Using Native American images and mascots can easily reduce living human beings to the level of a cartoon, caricature or stereotype. Even when there is no bad intent, these images can carry on and spread some of the symbols of the most painful parts of our great country's history.

Well said, and pretty impressive for a school district not always known for moving boldly forward.

Once upon a time in America, a lot of people thought that Indians, Braves, Redskins and such were fine names for sports teams. But it's become clear how ridiculing it is to reduce an ethnic group to a mascot.

The discussion hasn't been without push-back. Some who perhaps have not seen their own ethnicity, race or religion portrayed this way say everyone's too sensitive.

But what better place for this kind of change than where kids are supposed to be learning about the world, its history and its future.

In Hillsborough, gone would be the Chiefs, Braves, Indians and Warriors. Students and their families were being asked for input on new names in a nicely collaborative process that gives them some ownership.

As for the Chamberlain High Chiefs and East Bay High Indians — where it was determined that dedicated alumni would likely balk at changing their mascots — efforts were made for better understanding of Native American culture. They also planned more authentic costumes and rituals at their games.

And a small victory: American Indian students may wear eagle feathers as a sign of honor at graduation.

But just as the name-changes were coming, enter the school board.

At a meeting last week for an unrelated purpose, the board heard from Brandon families who are against renaming the mascot at Brooker Elementary, home of the Braves. They talked of how this could slight their community's heritage, though respecting long history and deeply-rooted heritage is what was about to be accomplished.

Oh, and if you wanted to see this and what the school board did afterward? Sorry. The board no longer broadcasts or webcasts the sometimes contentious public comment portion of their day, so you can't.

School board members said yes, things were moving too fast. Board member Steve Cona allowed as to how the idea of renaming his middle school mascot hit him "hard." (Shouldn't we all have such problems?)

And they voted unanimously to weigh in.

Post-meeting, superintendent Jeff Eakins told Times reporter Marlene Sokol he would acquiesce to their wishes and put the matter up for discussion at a meeting Tuesday.

Maybe in the end, change will come anyway. But why am I picturing a slow-walked and controversial mess of a matter I now suspect has a pretty good chance of dying on the vine?

Shannon Durant, chairwoman of the parent advisory committee that worked with school district officials on this, told the Times afterward she felt blindsided.

"I thought we were moving forward, and now you're telling me you're taking 20 steps backward," she said. "I was waiting to hear the new names."

And it's too bad. School officials were busy making a bold, important change, and the school board pulled it back.

Maybe there's a lesson in that, too.

Contact Sue Carlton at scarlton@tampabay.com.