The USD 383 school board will again discuss potentially changing the Manhattan High School mascot from the Indians, which some have called offensive.
The board didn’t officially vote on the issue, which wasn’t on the agenda, but a majority of the board showed support for having district administrators re-examine the mascot and bring back a recommendation for the board. The count was 4-3 in favor of revisiting the issue, based on what members said during the meeting.
Board president Karla Hagemeister said she was inspired to begin a new push for the change following the Washington NFL team’s decision to abandon their name, the Redskins, which for years had been criticized as an offensive slur for Native Americans. Additionally, Hagemeister said if the board was truly going to stand by its words of support for equity earlier in June amid the national Black Lives Matter protests, the board had to act on the high school Indian image.
“It was not lost on me, that there’s a portion of our student population and of our community who feel exempted or excluded from that (statement),” Hagemeister said, referring to Native American students and community members.
The school board has revisited the Indian name and symbol periodically in the past few decades, most recently in December 2016. That year, the board settled on enhancing the Native American curriculum and cultural respect in the school district while maintaining the Indian name and symbol. Community members have traditionally referred to the debate as the mascot issue, but Manhattan High has never had a costumed Indian mascot, and follow-up conversations in 2017 settled on allowing students to pick an alternate symbol to serve as the on-field mascot. Students picked a wolf to serve as that symbol, although it has yet to be implemented at any high school events.
Hagemeister recognized the division the mascot issue has caused in the community, but she said given recent events, it merits further discussion.
“We need to have a fresh look, we need to recognize where we are, and we need to go forward with it,” she said.
Hagemeister, Jurdene Coleman, Katrina Lewison and Kristin Brighton were in favor of revisiting the issue. Darell Edie, Curt Herrman and Brandy Santos were against. Of those, only Edie and Herrman were on the board at the time of the 2016 decision.
Edie said the issue was already settled and that the whole community had just gone through that ordeal.
“Just because you and a couple of the others weren’t there — there’s a lot of documentation you can read,” he said. “We do not need to be going through this whole thing already, again. So I’m saying no, absolutely, not again.”
Herrman backed Edie, saying that the board reached “a pretty good compromise” during the last mascot discussion, and he said he wouldn’t be interested in approaching the issue again. Santos agreed with the pair, saying that the question had been settled, but was noncommittal on the issue itself.
Coleman said she wasn’t surprised by Edie’s and Herman’s responses, and she implied that they didn’t have the cultural knowledge to be open to revisiting the issue.
“What happened before was a step in the right direction, but it was a step, in a process,” she said. “And as a person, I’m in a different place, in terms of cultural competency, knowledge on racial equity and inclusivity. I feel it was just a step, and there’s more work to be done.”
Brighton said she doesn’t think the district has met fully met the commitments it outlined in the aftermath of the 2016 vote, and that there is still a long way to go to educate Manhattan-Ogden students adequately about Native American people. She said she’s anecdotally heard that people outside the community are shocked to learn that Manhattan High continues to use an Indian mascot.
“I feel like we still have not done everything the district said it would do two and a half years ago,” she said. “I think we still have a long way to go. We’ve talked about some of the steps we’ve been exploring, but we still have not done a great job of educating our students about native and indigenous people in our country.”
Although board members said people might have thought the issue was settled for at least the next decade, Brighton and Lewison said the world is a lot different than it was even three years ago and the mascot issue merited new discussion. Brighton pointed out that as the high school prepares for a $26.8 million expansion in the next couple of years, it could be prudent for the board to reconsider the name sooner rather than later.
With the narrow decision, Hagemeister instructed superintendent Marvin Wade to explore the issue with district staff and return to the board with a recommendation, for a future board vote with public comment. While the board did not specify a timeline for that recommendation, Wade later told The Mercury he could put together a recommendation as soon as the board tells him they need it.
“There’s no good time for this, no matter when it would be,” Hagemeister said. “For some folks, it would be too soon, and for other folks, it would not be soon enough. I don’t know that there’s any great answer that makes everybody happy here. I just feel I have to do what is right here, and that’s why I brought it to the board.”
ON THE RECORD
Here’s what school board members said about the high school mascot issue when they were up for election:
The following excerpts are from an Oct. 2017 story ahead of the school board election.
The process of bringing together a group of people with varying interests on the mascot issue and working strategically through predetermined steps was incredible to watch and, in my opinion, successful. I support all recommendations.
If elected I will work to ensure those goals are met. I also see us continuing to move the ball forward in educating our students about all diverse cultures as a requirement rather than an elective course. At the elementary level, we could do more to expose children to diverse peoples and culture.
The community continues to be in a state of unrest as evidenced by the continued discussion of this already voted upon issue, which leads me to believe this is not the last we’ll hear of the mascot issue. I am prepared to listen to both sides and make an informed decision on how to honor our past and move into the future.
I attended multiple meetings of MHS mascot committee as an observer and watched a group of people with divergent backgrounds and opinions work together to accomplish the tasks set for them… I very much respect the work that they completed. I now see it as the mission of the incoming board to execute the recommendations that the committee made and the current board approved.
There have been some who have stated that the issue should have been voted on a year ago and put to rest. I respectfully disagree. Hard issues are not resolved without purposeful communication and dialogue, and this is one of those issues.
As a board member, I would not expect to bring this issue back to the table myself except in respect to holding ourselves accountable for the decisions made this September. I do, however, expect to do just that – I expect the board to be held accountable to ensure that the recommendations are executed. The committee did the work, now it is the responsibility of the board to see that the work is fulfilled.
Although some lambasted the school board for “kicking the can down the road,” I thought that the process was thoughtful and insightful. There were good recommendations, perhaps most importantly, the creation of an on-going diversity committee.
It’s an excellent way to acknowledge that we are going to continue to have differences, but we’ll keep an open, civil dialogue. In the future, I do not personally plan to pursue this issue. However, I will pay close attention to the community’s dialogue, as well as emergent themes highlighted in the diversity committee.
The following is from an October 2019 candidate forum ahead of the school board election. Kristin Brighton and Brandy Santos did not attend.
Herrman said he was OK with moving forward with the mascot, but he said the school board had already spent two years discussing the matter, and alumni and students at the school will always be the Indians.
Edie said that he’d spoken with past and present students, and he didn’t think there was any significant support for a change in mascot. He also said he was fine with a wolf mascot on the football field, but he said the school board should be more concerned with pressing issues facing the student body, rather than with a mascot. As a result of the mascot decision two years ago, Edie said the school has worked to better honor and respect diversity in its students.