A Tricky Course for New Loudoun School Named for Tribe: How to Choose Its Mascot

By Michael Alison Chandler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 15, 2009; B01

After Loudoun County's new Tuscarora High School was named for an Indian tribe, Principal Pamela Paul-Jacobs assumed her first politically fraught assignment: choosing a mascot.

The principal said she wanted to avoid struggles she had seen play out elsewhere, such as demonstrations outside Washington Redskins football games. "I want to pay respect to the Tuscaroras' heritage. I don't want to create controversy," she said.

The mascot's fate will be decided this week, when incoming students -- the school opens in 2010 -- vote by secret ballot on the final three choices. In the run-up to the election, Paul-Jacobs has been struggling to settle on the final contenders.

The long campaign to rid U.S. schools of Indian mascots has made a significant dent in the number of Warriors, Squaws and Indians that have competed in high school football or debate.

In recent decades, many principals removed leering Indian logos or decorative feathers from school sports jerseys, prompted by protests that Indian mascots are damaging stereotypes of modern-day cultures.

Some school boards across the country have outlawed the use of Indian names or mascots. The Montgomery School Board did so in 2001. Montgomery Village Middle School dropped its Warriors mascot in favor of the Mustangs, and Poolesville High School abandoned its Indians mascot of more than 50 years to become the home of the Falcons.

Activists' claims of discrimination have been bolstered in the past several years by groups including the American Psychological Association, the American Sociological Society and the NCAA, who called on schools and sports teams to retire their Indian mascots. They cited a growing body of research showing that the mascots create a hostile learning environment for Native American students and hurt their self-esteem.

Still, a handful of schools in the region and hundreds across the nation have held fast to their cherished mascots or nicknames, including Chopticon High School in St. Mary's County and Anacostia Senior High School (the Indians) in the District.

Indian imagery can be a positive symbol for a school, said Rudy Zimmerman, athletics director at Gar-Field High School, home of the Indians, in Prince William County. "They are strong people with a sense of pride. That is how we see ourselves," he said. Chopticon High Principal Garth Bowling said his school is "careful about respecting" the image, which is specific to the Choptico tribe, reserving it for official letterhead or the student handbook.

Many schools say the names are meant to honor, not offend, Native Americans. Redskins officials have made the same argument.

Paul-Jacobs said it was fitting that she would come to lead a school named for an Indian tribe, because she can trace some of her ancestry to Lumbee and Waccamaw Siouan Indians. She was unsure, though, of the best way to pay homage to the Tuscarora Indians, who made a slow migration through Virginia on their way from North Carolina to New York after battling with European settlers in the early 18th century. Many set down roots along the path, including along the Route 15 corridor, where the school is being built.

It's not her decision alone. Selecting a mascot is an important early step in creating a school community. Paul-Jacobs posted an invitation on the school's Web site inviting future students to contribute ideas. Close to 200 suggestions came back, including the Tuscarora Ticks, the Terminators, the Tigers and the Tarantulas. Three top picks emerged: the Huskies, the Timber Wolves and the Tribe.

Paul-Jacobs was excited at the overwhelming response but paused at the suggestion of the Tribe. She had flashes of Chief Wahoo, the Cleveland Indians' mascot, and thought it might be too controversial. But then again, "maybe I am being too sensitive," she said. Her students had compelling reasons for choosing the name. A tribe signifies "a family and people coming together for a greater cause, the strength of the collective group," she said.

Should it go on the ballot? She decided last week to consult Teresa Morris, founder of the Coastal Carolina Indian Center and a descendant of Tuscarora Indians, who remained in North Carolina.

Morris said she was honored that the school community chose the name Tuscarora but felt that "to go beyond that could border into disrespect, intended or not," Paul-Jacob recounted. "If people show up at a game wearing war paint, if they make Indian chants, it has no meaning to them. But for Native American people, they do have meaning," she related after her conversation with Morris.

In an e-mail, Morris suggested that the school consider the cardinal, Virginia's state bird, as a mascot. That would be a symbol that could represent everyone rather than singling out one racial group, she reasoned.

Many Native Americans or advocates say a neutral mascot for an Indian-named school is best. Clif Morton, of the Wisconsin Indian Education Association Mascot and Logo task force, offered what could be called the "locker test." Say it's homecoming, and your high school team is known as "the Tribe." How do you decorate your locker?

Too often, he said, lockers are covered with tomahawks, spears or generic profiles of Indians that have nothing to do with the specific history of any tribe and perpetuate a warlike stereotype.

Paul-Jacobs thought for a few days and ultimately decided to remove "Tribe" from the list of choices. "I felt really uncomfortable with it," she said.

In its place on the ballot, along with the Huskies and the Timber Wolves, will be the Tigers, another popular choice among students.

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