The national debate regarding the use of Native American logos and imagery for sports teams has surfaced in Grant County in the form of opposing petitions regarding Mississinewa Community Schools’ “Indians” mascot and logo.
The topic of Native American mascots has come to the forefront recently, as professional sports franchises like the Washington Redskins and Cleveland Indians announced this past week they will be reviewing and possibly changing their team names. Mississinewa High School (MHS) 2016 alumnus Nick Williams started a Change.org petition last week which now has nearly 3,000 signatures calling on Superintendent Tab McKenzie and the school administration to “retire” the Indians mascot.
Williams said he has good memories of attending MHS and is thankful for the staff that made an impact on his life, but the Indians mascot has put his experiences in a different light. He said he now slightly resents the fact the school allowed or encouraged the “tomahawk” gesture at sporting events, wearing war paint and having a student dress up as a Native American.
“I cringe at those memories cause I now know that those are not the ways we should be celebrating Native Americans,” Williams said. “The association I have with a school corporation that continues to allow this behavior is what drove me to write this petition.”
According to Williams, the Indian mascot presents a stereotypical and appropriated image of Indigenous people that is harmful, inaccurate and offensive. He said while some may see their own history and school pride in the mascot, the true source of pride for Ole Miss should come from the “hardworking educators and the students that strive for excellence every day.”
“I think the ‘Indian’ mascot at Mississinewa Community Schools needs to be changed because of the many Native Americans that have spoken out against this outdated and appropriated American tradition. Just because we have had this tradition in our community for decades doesn’t mean we can’t learn and do better,” Williams said. “In reality, this mascot does offend a certain population and we should want to create a more inclusive and educated environment for our community.”
McKenzie said while he understands Williams’ point of view and the fact that “historically our white American culture has at times portrayed the American Indian in a disrespectful and negative manner,” Ole Miss has had direct discussions with members of the Miami Tribe about the mascot. The district felt the Miami tribe representatives appreciated the respect and honor the school used with its Native American mascot, according to McKenzie.
“I do not believe that the Mississinewa community or school district has a racist or a disrespectful attitude or portrayal of American Indians as represented by our mascot,” he said. “I believe that our school and community has the highest respect and appreciation for the American Indian culture and heritage. We honor and respect the contributions, values, influences and the history of the American Indian as it relates to our school, community and to central Indiana.”
Williams said he has been in contact with a younger Miami Tribe member, Chris Bowyer, who explained that the headdress in Mississinewa’s logo is not similar to the Myaamia style of the Miami Tribe and that the mascot costume is not in specifically Miami Tribe attire but rather in “‘vaguely Native garb.”
“I’m a Miami Indian, federally recognized and a citizen of the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma,” Bowyer wrote on Williams’ petition webpage. “I do not believe this mascot is honorific in any way and is in fact contemptible.”
McKenzie said that the school district does not sanction or tolerate negative stereotypes or disrespect for the local Indian heritage.
“We believe that the Indian culture, heritage and history in Grant County and central Indiana are a part of who we are today. We are proud of our heritage and the impact of the American Indian on that heritage and culture,” McKenzie said. “We think we promote and honor the American Indian by having the ‘Indian’ mascot.”
Williams said while the district discussing the mascot with Miami Tribe members is a good thing, he questioned whether every single tradition, costume and slogan has been approved by tribe members. He said the school should also seek out many different view points from Native Americans.
“If the school’s intent is to be respectful, then we should be listening to the entire population of Native Americans instead of a select few. Just do any research and you will see that this is something that many Indigenous people have been disavowing for decades,” he said. “I think our school administration should look at the big picture and understand this is a nationwide conversation as many other schools have changed their mascot.”
Williams said the reaction to his petition has been varied but have included local Native Americans, including some MHS alumni, thanking him for restarting the conversation on the issue. He said he has also researched and learned more about how the mascots “disregard the personhood” of Indigenous people through resources like the National Congress of American Indians.
“A fellow alumnus of Mississinewa who is also a local Native reached out and expressed her time at the school,” Williams said. “She admitted to me that she didn’t feel comfortable participating in spirit week or attending sporting events because the act of a non-native wearing a costume was offensive to her and affected her own self-esteem.”
While he is thankful for the support he has received, Williams said he has also received hateful comments he was not expecting, including threats of physical harm and personal attacks on his appearance.
“As an alumnus of Ole Miss, I feel like I have every right to speak up on this issue. The community should act with understanding rather than hate when their idea and belief system is challenged,” he said. “I was very sad and disheartened by the community response.”
An opposing Change.org petition started by MHS alumnus Nick Fetterhoff now has more than 3,300 signatures calling on the school to retain the Indians mascot.
On the webpage for the petition to keep the Indians mascot, MHS alumni Derek Sessoms said the school’s work with the Miami Tribe is “pretty widely known” and asked those in favor of changing the mascot to think of the countless student athletes who made lasting memories as Mississinewa Indians.
“It was pride, proud to be a Mississinewa Indian. Some of us bled in those uniforms, cried at the end of our time playing, and have tons of memories representing as Mississinewa Indians,” Sessoms wrote. “The same pride when I take my children back to where I once represented as an athlete. I’d ask the community to think about this before you sign a petition to change the name, Mississinewa Indians.”
Williams said even if the mascot isn’t completely changed right away, he would like to see Miami Tribe members approve every single aspect of how the mascot and logo are implemented. He said he also hopes to see the Miami Tribe involved in educating students and staff members on Native American history and current experiences.
“I and many others would love to see local natives be honored instead of made into a character that vaguely represents who they really are,” Williams said. “We must give our school time to come up with an answer because I know this is already a very difficult time as they are implementing changes in the wake of the pandemic. I would like to thank the educators, community leaders and local natives who have supported this petition and backed me up when I was receiving so much hate for being the one that broke the ice on this issue.”
McKenzie said he was not aware of a discussion on the school mascot being placed on any upcoming school board agenda as of last week, which would require school board President Wayne Gaskin requesting to do so. Any decision on the future of the mascot would be a school board and community decision, not an executive decision made by the administration, McKenzie said.