School mascots are again a source of controversy in the Hillsborough County Public Schools, and this time it’s because of stalled community meetings.
The chairperson of a parent advisory committee, Shannon Durant, says the district scheduled a series of town hall meetings in September to consider the future of Chamberlain and East Bay high schools, which both have Native American-theme mascots. Chamberlain has the Chiefs; East Bay has the Indians.
Superintendent Addison Davis postponed the meetings because of COVID-19, which was spreading rapidly at the time, even though one of the meetings would have been virtual.
COVID-19 case counts are way down now. But Durant, an East Bay parent of Mechoopda heritage, said she has not heard any indication the meetings are being rescheduled.
In the meantime, Durant said, “they still have Friday night football and they still have homecoming and they still have indoor volleyball.”
School Board members, for the most part, have not been responsive either, Durant said. And, she added, Davis has not answered her emails.
District spokeswoman Tanya Arja said Tuesday that the issue is still alive.
“While the Superintendent and board paused the process earlier this year, district staff continue to engage with student groups and members of the community to have this important discussion,” she said. “Our district respects and honors diversity and inclusion and looks forward to receiving more input from all stakeholders.”
Arja was not able to provide any more details about the nature of the ongoing conversations.
Hillsborough schools began changing out mascots in mid-2019 in collaboration with Durant’s committee, which exists as part of a federal program to protect the interests of Native American students.
The district issued an announcement on May 13, 2019, that contained mixed signals.
“The current mascots do not respect every culture and every person in our communities,” the document said. “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.”
Four paragraphs later, it said Chamberlain and East Bay could keep their mascots because “we believe students at the high school level are better prepared to understand the differences and sensitivities around cultures.”
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The parent committee worked to assist Chamberlain and East Bay in portraying Native American culture in a more authentic manner. Separately, the school board members, who were blindsided by the 2019 changes and took backlash from constituents, enacted a policy that brings them into the process of any future mascot changes.
Mainstream Native American organizations have opposed the use of mascots such as “Braves” and “Redskins” for decades, said Sheridan Murphy, a director at the Florida Indigenous Alliance.
He sees town hall meetings as a logical step in explaining their objection to alumni groups and others intent on preserving the status quo.
“I think there’s a lot of people that cling to a tradition that they have and they don’t realize the impact that tradition is having on native people throughout the country and here,” said Murphy, who is of Lakota heritage.
But as professional sports teams change their names and school districts around the nation move away from Native American representation, a new competing voice has entered the debate. Using the motto “educate, not eradicate,” the Native American Guardian’s Association says showcasing their heritage can help students feel proud of cultures that are largely invisible in popular culture.
“It keeps Native Americans in the public consciousness,” said Tony Henson, a member of the organization’s board. He cited Telemundo, the Spanish language cable network, and high-profile Black entertainers and athletes. “Native Americans just don’t have that, by and large,” he said.
Murphy said Henson’s organization is an outlier, and that the larger, more established Indian organizations have consistently opposed the mascots. Henson said his members do not like mascots themselves, as they often are stereotypical and cartoonish. “But we do support respectful names and images, similar to what you see at reservation schools,” he said.
The group’s website makes it clear that they aim their message at political conservatives. There is a video about the threat of socialism, a section about media bias, and use of the inflammatory catchphrase, “cancel culture.”
To that, Murphy said, “I think the culture that’s being canceled is Native culture,” through depictions that are overly generic. “The Seminole culture is about as similar to Hopi as Cubans are to Swedes, right?” he said. “There’s not true understanding, but a monolithic understanding of a Hollywood Indian.”
Durant said she has heard Henson’s organization reached out to school district leaders, which might be a factor in the delayed action. Henson said a member met recently with a community group near East Bay. He did not know the details of that exchange.
School Board member Jessica Vaughn, who made cultural sensitivity a key constituent issue, said she is frustrated by the whole situation. She said she believes the district’s new policy, which says all mascot choices “shall respect cultural differences, and values,” should be retroactive.
“Those mascots are from a time when we were still living with segregation,” she said. “That’s how outdated these mascots are.”