By Claudia Yaw / [email protected]
The chairwoman of the Cowlitz Indian tribe, Patty Kinswa-Gaiser, wants Toledo’s mascot to remain “Indian”. The school district has been the home of the “Indians” for 100 years, including when Kinswa-Gaiser was a student.
“I don’t think Toledo Indians are a harmful name. I have been Indian all my life. My ancestors too, and they lived here, ”said Kinswa-Gaiser on Tuesday, sitting in the commons of Toledo High School.
But her daughter Suzanne Donaldson wants the name to be gone. She says many tribe members find the nickname offensive.
“I am a different generation. And I’m from modern times and it’s definitely inappropriate, ”said Donaldson, adding that she was called Sacagawea just last week.
“It’s those things that make people think it’s okay to talk to us and treat us that way,” said Donaldson of the school’s mascot. “It’s not okay.”
Donaldson’s mother remembers her school years spending time in a director’s office in Onalaska after defending her younger sister against racial ridicule. The way Donaldson sees it, it’s ironic that her mother still supports the name “Indian” afterward.
“My mother and I disagree, but we can have a respectful conversation,” said Donaldson. “And that’s important.”
The generational gap emerged on Tuesday when the Toledo School District convened its first focus group to discuss school rebranding. Superintendent Chris Rust invited Cowlitz tribesmen and other indigenous peoples to discuss the top 20 mascots he made out of what he considered to be “mascot primaries.” Of the hundreds of suggestions submitted by the community, Rust preemptively removed any suggestions that were labeled “Indians.”
While Rust introduces new mascot ideas to the community, he’s also hoping the state could exempt Toledo from the new state law that started the rebranding from the start. The law largely prohibits the “inappropriate use” of Native American mascots and images in public schools. Certain exceptions apply to school districts near tribal trust lands. The bill does not exempt Toledo, but Rust hopes state officials will give the OK since the Cowlitz Indian tribe is headquartered near Longview.
In this case, the district would need the approval of the tribe to continue using its mascot.
The state “understands our situation,” said Rust, and could ultimately give its approval. During the focus group, Rust described the school’s renaming as an “unintended consequence” of the new state law, pointing to a positive relationship between the district and the Cowlitz Indian tribe.
If the state grants an exception, it would be a relief for Kinswa-Gaiser and Jim Wallace, a member of the Hoopa Valley Tribe whose family owns Toledo’s Gee Cee’s Truck Stop.
Generations of Wallace’s family have passed through the Toledo School District. On Tuesday, he said changing mascots was “a slap in the face of the local community”.
Wallace said he agrees with state law and how Kinswa-Gaiser and Donaldson consider the district’s older relics – such as the Chief Wahoo cartoon and retired older mascot costumes – to be offensive. But he described Toledo as trapped in the middle, forced to give up his name despite the support of some members of the indigenous community.
If the name “Indian” is retained, it would also benefit people like Loren Bowen, a non-indigenous parishioner whose family has also been walking the district for generations.
Bowen wore a baseball cap with the “Chief Wahoo logo,” a rip off of the Cleveland Indian image, and a rust that was labeled racist. Bowen said he got it from school.
“I think it should just stay that way,” Bowen said of the district’s masot. “What’s the matter with it? Can someone explain? “
While participants disagreed on the mascot issue, there was consensus that the Cowlitz Indian tribe played a significant role in the school district. David Ike, a celebrated Cowlitz tribe who Kinswa-Gaiser and Donaldson both call “Uncle”, is remembered in high school. Kinswa-Gaiser recalls getting on school buses and giving encouragement to student-athletes in both English and Cowlitz languages.
Wallace and Kinswa-Gaiser say Ike and other elders who have since died would not want the “Indian” mascot to be scrapped. Donaldson isn’t so sure.
The new state law this year was supported by tribal members from across the state as well as the Superintendent’s Office for Public Education. The bill itself references the US Civil Rights Commission, which has recommended that the practice be stopped for years. The stereotypes in school are “disturbing” and could contribute to a “racially hostile educational environment”.
Other proponents pointed to the American Psychological Association’s finding that such mascots harm the development and self-esteem of young indigenous peoples.
Ultimately, the bill received support from both parties, with all legislators in the 19th and 20th legislative districts voting in favor.
But this bipartisan support in Olympia does not suppress local divisions.
Before they dispersed, Donaldson – whose shirt read “I Heart Toledo” and “I’m Not Your Mascot” – took off her Cowlitz Indian Tribe hat and handed it to Bowen. In return, she asked Bowen to give up his “Chief Wahoo” hat. He refused.
“I don’t know if I want to give it up,” said Bowen.
At the end of the focus group on Wednesday in Toledo, the few participants threw their support behind the name “Riverhawks” – the winner of the “Mascot Primary School”.