To show its respect to the Native American community, the Hillsborough County School District is changing school mascots at six schools and traditions at two high schools.
New mascots are being chosen for Adams Middle School — currently home of the “Warriors” — and these elementary schools: Forest Hills, Brooker and Ruskin (all Braves); Thonotosassa (Chiefs) and Summerfield (the Indians).
A notice went out last week to families informing them of the plan and asking for their input in choosing new names. “This is an exciting time for them, as they get to create something for their school,” said district spokeswoman Tanya Arja.
At East Bay and Chamberlain high schools, where the Indians and the Chiefs are the respective mascots, sporting events will be modified to feature costumes and rituals that are more authentic and less insensitive.
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The changes follow months of meetings between school district officials and a parent advisory committee from the Native American community.
They also reflect work done by students, teachers and principals at Chamberlain and East Bay.
“This is a generation that is empowered, and is more inclusive,” said Lourdes Hernandez-Gonzalez, who works in the school district’s social work services department and served as the district’s point person on the effort.
Shannon Durant, chairwoman of the Native American parents’ group, said that although the discussions continue, they’re pleased with the results: “The kids were awesome. The teachers were awesome.”
Since 2017, the district has been operating under a racial equity policy that seeks to reverse institutional racism.
Even before then, the federal government had a law, now called Title VI, that addresses the academic struggles of Native American and Alaskan students and makes grant funds available to close those gaps. To qualify for the grants, districts must work with parent advisory committees such as the one that Durant chairs.
The organization reached a significant milestone in 2018 when the district agreed to allow Native American students to wear eagle feathers, a sign of honor, at graduation ceremonies.
The mascot issue was trickier. Some schools voluntarily changed their mascots, Durant said. In the case of elementary schools, the district was able to pitch the renamings as a fun experience for students.
But, Durant said, her small group did not think the alumni associations at certain high schools would stand for completely changing the old mascots.
Instead, they worked with district and school leaders to help the students at those schools gain a better appreciation of Native American culture.
The adults led cooking lessons in both schools. They took part in Native American Heritage Month. They made students aware of scholarship opportunities.
They organized displays at the schools and at the Florida State Fair. They negotiated revisions to the Chamberlain yearbook and changed the way the principal and band dress during football games.
“There is no other ethnic group that’s a mascot,” Durant said.
Still, she had hoped the changes would be made quietly.
But on Monday afternoon, the school district sent out an announcement.
“The current mascots do not respect every culture and every person in our communities,” the district said in a statement.
“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.”
Addressing the exception made for Chamberlain and East Bay, the statement went on to say, “we believe students at the high school level are better prepared to understand the difference and sensitivities around cultures.”
One of the reasons for establishing Title VI was the relatively low graduation rate among Native American students nationwide. That isn’t the case in Hillsborough, which does not have large numbers of students living on reservations. Officially, Native American and Alaskan students make up less than 1 percent of the population, Hernandez-Gonzalez said.
But many students may have mixed heritage, she said, which is why the district believes those numbers are under-reported.
She said the changes will benefit all students, and not just those with Native American heritage.
“This has increased their cultural sensitivity and awareness,” she said. “It’s doing the right thing.”
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