Decision to keep Indian as SM North mascot frustrates local members of Native American tribes

SM North's mascot is a Shawnee Indian in traditional garb.
SM North’s mascot is a Shawnee Indian in traditional garb.

The decision to keep the Indian as the mascot for Shawnee Mission North in the wake of the Eastern Shawnee Tribe of Oklahoma’s move to rescind the permission it had given the district 1992 has frustrated a number of northeast Kansas residents, including Native Americans in Lawrence and here in Johnson County.

Inez Robinson, a Lawrence High School junior, is a member of the school’s InterTribal Club. Of Southern Cheyenne and Kiowa descent, Robinson penned an essay in the wake of the district’s announcement earlier this month arguing that the continued use of the Indian mascot perpetuated harmful stereotypes.

“Shawnee Mission North decided to uphold their racist traditions, and by doing so they are reinforcing the idea that I am a mythical being, an extinct animal, something rather than someone. A mascot,” she wrote.

In her essay, Robinson details the history of abuse and atrocity suffered by indigenous peoples during the settling of the United States by Europeans, noting that those grievances “were never mended.”

“So, how do you honor a group of people that have lived through oppression for the past five hundred years? How do you repay the people who have never been served justice on their own land?” she wrote. “You don’t dress up in cheap outfits and do the tomahawk chop.”

Eric Sheets, the father of a SM North student and a member of the Kickapoo Tribe in Kansas, said he believed the district’s decision not to change the mascot was likely driven by finances. In Manhattan, where the school district faced a similar controversy over its high school Indian mascot, the board of education estimated that it would cost more than $300,000 to replace all of the Indian mascot imagery in the school and on uniforms.

“What other than money would motivate District officials to turn their eye from a wave of efforts across the country over the last decade to jettison the ethnic mascot at the high school level?” Sheets said. “And when you consider that the District subsequently relented in their sanctioning of highly offensive half-time practices at football games (a decision that costs no money), their motivation becomes all the more clear that they just don’t want to spend the money or offend alumni who strongly attached cherished and formative high school memories with the Native American head insignia.”

Sheets says that the use of the Indian as a mascot is problematic in SM North’s case because the school has no connections to a recognized Indian tribe, and that the use of the term “Indian” lumps together people from a wide and diverse collection of more than 560 recognized tribes, groups and bands under a single label. He believes the use of the Indian as a mascot creates a sense of “otherness” for students of native descent.

“Students could very well know that this type of ethnic caricature is neither realistic nor representative of contemporary Indians, yet if they choose to participate in any school-sanctioned activity that brandishes the Indian head logo, they’re tacitly accepting that an element of the caricature is true,” he said. “In this regard, such continued use of the ethnic mascot would seem to run afoul of SMN’s Mission Statement that the School ‘develops life-long learners and responsible, globally-conscious citizens through high expectations for student achievement within a caring school community.'”

Sheets said he hopes the district will ultimately retire the mascot, but that he isn’t optimistic it will happen any time soon.

“Unfortunately, due to the myopia displayed by District officials, I don’t think that rational discourse or impassioned pleas by Native parents of students within the district would amount to much,” he said. “The District appears to motivated by money over all else with regard to this issue, so I believe that only money would change their minds. Money or lots of negative press.”

Another SM North father, who is white, suggested to the Shawnee Mission Post that the decision was short-sighted, and that he hoped the district would ultimately reconsider.

“From my perspective they weighed the history of the district and the school more heavily than the present and future of SMN, which looks to me to be heading toward greater diversity,” the father wrote. “Various [media reports] touch on the expense that the district would likely incur to change the mascot. Perhaps an independent organization or individual that supports such causes would be willing to pay for such expenses.”