High schools throughout the country face mascot controversies

A banner displaying Teton High Schools new Timberwolf mascot and nickname. The Timberwolf mascot was approved in June of 2020, replacing the schools Redskin mascot.

contributed by Susan Pence

A banner displaying Teton High Schools new Timberwolf mascot and nickname. The Timberwolf mascot was approved in June of 2020, replacing the schools Redskin mascot.

By Emily Moy, Pascack Valley High School

(Editor’s Note: The Board of Education approved the removal of the Pascack Valley and Pascack Hills mascots, the Indians and Cowboys, in June. PV is one of many schools in New Jersey that has had a mascot derived from Native American culture. However, Native American mascots aren’t just found in NJ – they’re found throughout the United States. In our twelfth installment of our “What’s in a Name?” coverage package, Staff Writer Emily Moy explores the mascot situations of Teton High School in Driggs, Idaho and Neshaminy High School in Langhorne, Pennsylvania.) 

Similarly to PV, Teton High School in Driggs, ID, retired its Native American mascot. On the other hand, Neshaminy High School in Langhorne, PA still has a Redskin as its mascot.

Teton and Neshaminy have both faced some form of backlash for having Native American mascots; parents at each of these schools went to school board meetings to speak out against the logos.

Teton High School

In March 2019, parents of Teton High School students began protesting the school’s mascot, a Redskin.

“At a school board meeting, they decided to keep [the Redskin] for the Class of 2020,” Sadie Hicks, a 2020 Teton alum and former editor of the Teton newspaper, The Howler, said. “The new mascot, [a Timberwolf, is in place for the 2020-21 school year].”

The foreword in the 2014 edition of the Teton High School yearbook. The Redskins mascot was replaced this school year following appeals from parents. (contributed by Susan Pence)

According to an email from Hicks, the Timberwolf mascot was finalized in June of 2020, after multiple rounds of voting from Teton Valley eighth to 12th grade students.

However, that wasn’t the first time that Teton parents had brought up the mascot. The topic arose in 2013 when parents voiced concerns about the possible ramifications of the mascot and nickname on their children’s futures. The main worry was that the association of the Redskins nickname (which many consider to be a racial slur), could affect their children’s abilities to get jobs, according to Hicks.

The journalists of The Howler began reading about their mascot and the news surrounding it in their local newspaper. According to Hicks, they had to decide whether or not they wanted to keep the name of their newspaper, which at the time was The War Cry, due to its correlation to the school mascot. They decided to temporarily change it to something neutral: We Are Teton. After the Timberwolf mascot was put in place, the name was changed to The Howler.

“We wanted to make sure we knew what we were getting into before we made a statement that big,” Hicks said. “[The War Cry] was feeding into the racial slur that was our mascot. [The name change to We Are Teton showed] that we were open to a new mascot and that we wanted a neutral name.”

Students in favor of keeping Teton’s Redskin mascot organized walkouts to gain support for their cause. Although many students wanted to keep the mascot, Hicks said that “the majority of the school didn’t really care, and then there were a few that really wanted it changed or really didn’t want it changed.”

You can’t keep something because it’s a tradition—that doesn’t mean it’s right.”

— 2020 Teton High School alum Sadie Hicks

“A lot of people were opposed [to the change], but [they got over it],” Hicks said. “The general public [had] accepted that they [couldn’t] really change it. It [was] changed for sure and it won’t be the Redskins again.”

For Hicks, changing the mascot wasn’t just about future employers.

“It was just time to move on,” Hicks said. “I didn’t think it was appropriate anymore. If we didn’t bring it up now, then it was eventually going to be brought up later on. You can’t keep something because it’s a tradition—that doesn’t mean it’s right.”

Neshaminy High School

In September 2013, Gillian McGoldrick, who was a junior at Neshaminy High School in Langhorne, Pennsylvania at the time, was the editor in chief of The Playwickian, the school’s student newspaper.

The mascot of Neshaminy was, and still is, a Redskin. At the time, a Native American parent, Donna Boyle, had been attending school board meetings and urging for the board to change the mascot. Boyle filed a complaint with the Pennsylvania Human Right Commission (PHRC), a state agency that deals with discrimination. She believed that the name “Redskins” and the Neshaminy logo was damaging to her son’s education. Although Boyle dropped the case, the PHRC continued it.

“I never really listened to [Boyle],” McGoldrick said. “[I thought she was] just too sensitive [and that] our mascot [honored] the [Redskins]. I really thought that it was okay.”

However, during a debate between The Playwickian newspaper staff, McGoldrick switched sides.

“We split our classroom down the middle,” McGoldrick said. “We had a legitimate debate going back and forth. At one point, someone told me it was pretty much the equivalent of the n-word for Native American people. I got up and switched sides of the room.”

Two letters to the editor about the mascot were published in the Playwickian around that time, with one supporting and one advocating against the mascot. However, the publication “is subjected to prior review, which means that every article, headline, and photo published by the paper is reviewed and approved by the Neshaminy High School administration,” according to The Playwickian. 

“[The way we printed those letters to the editor] set our standard for the rest of the academic year,” McGoldrick said. “We said we were not going to be publishing [the word ‘Redskin’], and if we were to publish it, it would have been [written as] ‘R—’.”

It’s the smallest thing that people can do to respect other people’s humanity. It’s so simple to me. Mascots shouldn’t be groups of people that often experience such discrimination.”

— 2015 Neshaminy High School alum Gillian McGoldrick

Within the sports department of Playwickian, editors would write the “Neshaminy football team” or the “Neshaminy soccer team.” According to McGoldrick, it was “not a problem at all” and “nobody said anything, nobody cared. No one even noticed.”

Towards the end of the year, a letter to the editor was sent in to the Playwickian from a student who was the son of one of the school board members. In the letter, the student said he had a lot of pride in being called the Redskins and was “very critical” of how the newspaper had banned the word.

“I had no problem with publishing [the letter to the editor],” McGoldrick said. “We said we would print [the word ‘Redskins’ as] ‘R—’. The principal said we had to print it with the full word or we couldn’t print the newspaper at all.”

The Playwickian put out two editions then: a special graduation edition, along with their normal, periodical publication, where the letter to the editor was supposed to be printed. The principal approved the whole graduation edition but refused to approve the normal edition because the staff had printed the word ‘Redskins’ as ‘R—.’ In the end, the newspaper staff did not want to go against their policy of not printing the word Redskins. They instead decided to leave a blank space where the letter was supposed to go.

“We didn’t even replace what was in that space,” McGoldrick said. “We deleted the letter, and wrote ‘This blank space represents our determination to eliminate discrimination and to protect our rights as student editors.’”

McGoldrick’s principal pulled her out of one of her finals after that edition was published to interview her about removing the letter to the editor. McGoldrick and her dad were also called in during the summer to talk about prior review policies she had violated and how she had not been given the approval to have the blank space in the edition.

For the first 30 days of McGoldrick’s senior year, she was suspended from her editor-in-chief duties, but was still allowed to be involved with the newspaper. The Playwickian’s teacher advisor, Tara Huber, was suspended for two days without pay as well.

“[It] was extreme,” McGoldrick said. “[Huber] didn’t even encourage us to do this. It was what we wanted to do.”

In the winter of 2018, McGoldrick and a few others were called to the stand to testify in the case. In November of 2019, the PHRC told Neshaminy that they could keep the mascot name, but all related images and logos had to be changed. Neshaminy was also instructed to implement Native American history into its curriculum. However, since Neshaminy chose to appeal the PHRC’s decision, the case was sent to the state courts. At the present time, no new amendments have been made and the nickname remains the Redskins.

“To this day, I feel really strongly that there should be no Native American mascots,” McGoldrick said. “It’s the smallest thing that people can do to respect other people’s humanity. It’s so simple to me. Mascots shouldn’t be groups of people that often experience such discrimination.”

Here is a list of more U.S. high schools with Native American derived mascots.

A Connecticut high school removed its “Redmen” mascot, then later reinstated it.

Students at an Illinois high school debate their Indian mascot.

A Michigan school removed its Redskins mascot.

An Indiana high school replaced their Redskins mascot with the RedHawks.

A school board in Oklahoma is forming a committee to discuss a Redskins mascot.

A Floridian school district is changing their mascots at six schools and changing traditions at two others.

A Delaware school dropped its Redskins mascot.

A Wisconsin high school removed its Indian nickname but is keeping its feathered “F” logo.

This story was originally published on The Smoke Signal on December 22, 2020.