After six hours on Monday evening, Teton School Board members decided to continue the discussion over whether to retire or retain the Teton High School mascot by setting a work session in one week.
Over the course of five months, the debate as to whether the Redskin mascot serves as an appropriate representation for the high school has drawn passionate local debate, the attention of state leadership, national press coverage and found a local tribe set on making sweeping statewide changes to all schools who use Native Americans as mascots.
The meeting is set for Tuesday, July 16 at 6 p.m. at the Driggs Elementary School.
The board wrestled to cast a vote over the 90 year old Redskin mascot after hearing sometimes tearful testimony from the public, both in defense of the mascot and in support of changing it. School board member Mary Mello maintained that the board should consider a vote that evening, while school board member Ben Kearsley pushed back wanting to spend more time on the decision. Kearsley cautioned that the district could suffer community fallout and lose support of elected bonds and levies. School board chair Chris Isaacson considered that if a two-year supplemental levy did not pass, that funding could affect up to 19 teachers who depend on the additional levy.
But Mello pushed on asking the board to not be afraid of financial fallout, specifically when it came to a decision that impacted students and families in the school district. She asked the board to consider the Native American minority perspective arguing that with more than 30 percent of Teton High School composed of Hispanic students who are also in the minority, the board should also consider what message they were sending to those families, as well.
“I’m not in favor of continuing to delay the decision,” said Mello who served as a popular Teton High School counselor before her retirement.
Mello said that she understood the public’s point that the board should not decide whether the Redskin mascot was racist.
“It is the right of the Native Americans to decide if this is racist,” she said. “They are the voice that 100 percent believe that we should listen to to determine whether this is racist or not.”
School board member Jake Kunz sided a few times with Mello and expressed exhaustion over the issue. “I’m sick of this issue,” said Kunz after the close of public comment. “I have heard from a lot of people and in order for us to move forward, we have to move forward. At some point we have to take a stand.”
Kunz said that the bigger issue was not the mascot decision, but overall change in the community and the fear that change can elicit.
“We can’t approach this with fear,” he said. “The mascot is not that important. If I were to vote in favor of the change, I would not like the school to shoulder the financial burden,” he added.
Kearsley continued to advocate that the board take time to process through the Monday meeting insisting that other major issues that the board has discussed, have taken time to arrive at a decision. Further, Kearsley wanted the hard costs of changing the mascot including uniform and signage replacement.
In 2013, the last time the mascot was under consideration, the estimated cost of changing a mascot was projected at $60,000 to $80,000. This included buying new uniforms for all of the 13 high school sports teams. On Monday, Superintendent Monte Woolstenhulme did not have a new cost should the mascot changed, but did acknowledge that over the last six years, many of the high school’s athletic uniforms had cycled through a normal replacement process and many of the new uniforms did not use the word “Redskin” but rather “Teton.”
Mello asked who on the board could make a decision that evening. School board member Nan Pugh said she would be willing to make a decision. Kunz agreed that understanding the total cost to the school was important and Kearsley maintained that more public engagement was needed. Isaacson rolled her head, not committed to a vote that evening.
It was agreed that after the working session concluded on July 16, a vote as to whether the mascot should change or remain would be made by the board.
In a rare rebuke, Mello said that this issue should have been on the school board’s agenda sooner rather than later.
“I wanted it on the agenda,” said Mello who had asked that the board take the decision head when it came up this spring. “I really feel a need to say this, I’m concerned about the fallout.” She called Isaacson and Woolstenhulme out by name for placing a contentious debate on students and staff in the district.
“Some issues, as trustees, we just need to make a decision on,” she said pointing to Isaacson’s response in April that the mascot discussion be student, staff and community lead.
“We as a board, we need to take this on and should not put this on the staff and students,” he said. “In the end, our constituents put us in this position to make these hard decisions.”
By 6 p.m. on Monday, almost 180 people had gathered at Teton High School as the school board opened public comment with more than 100 watching on the Teton School District livestream and even more at the Teton Valley News and Jackson Hole News & Guide social media sites.
It was five months ago that a member of the public asked that the school board take up the idea of changing the Redskin name. It was six years to the day on Monday evening that the school board took up the discussion that had been tabled in 2013.
Since March, the community has responded in a variety of ways to the impending mascot decision as students hosted walk-outs at the high school to support the name, while the student newspaper changed its name from the War Cry to distance itself from the word Redskin. In June, two independent community forums were hosted, one with the Native American Guardians Association, a pro-Redskin nonprofit and another forum called the Native American Perspective where a panel of participating Native American members said the mascot should change.
The evening showcased the emotional divide in Teton County with many community members crying out that because they use the word Redskin, that did not make them racist. Community members, often dressed in “Save the Redskin” t-shirts, asked the school board to not change the mascot, that their financial support for the district would be pulled from levy and bonds votes if the mascot was changed.
“I’m against changing the name Redskins,” opened former Democratic Teton County Commissioner Jay Calderwood. “I graduated from Teton High School in 1954 and I’m very proud to be a Redskin. I boxed and played baseball and excelled in both. The Redskin name was feared in my days. We were well respected.”
Mason Moore, a student at THS heading into his senior year, stood and asked the board to change the mascot.
“Stop and take a close look at what we are fighting for,” said Moore. “I am here tonight to advocate for change. When the mascot has grown this divisive, then it’s not a mascot.”
Tracy Tonks, who has spearheaded the Save the Redskins movement online said the Shoshone-Bannock Tribe, Drigg’s closest neighboring Native American Tribe, did not have the right, “To come into our community and tell us what we can and cannot do.” She compared members of the community who sought to change the mascot to parasites who infect a host and in order for the community to heal that parasite needed to move on. She challenged the school board to be, “fearless Redskin warriors,” in light of the decision before them.
Several members of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribe spoke again that evening asking that the board consider changing the name, which they considered a racial slur, just as they had asked the board to do in 2013.
But still members of the community countered insisting that tribes other than Shoshone-Bannock, embraced the term.
“If you were sincere you would stop and listen,” said Michelle Beitinger, who lives in Teton Valley and is a descendant of Washington state’s Colville Confederated Tribes. Beitinger was a participant in the Native American Panel on June 26 with other tribal members who spoke against keeping the mascot. “If you never lived outside of this state and region, I think it would be difficult to see. For many Native Americans the word is associated with genocide and bigotry. I want you be able to look my children in the eye and honestly feel good about your decision and explain why their heritage is being misrepresented in a manner not chosen by natives. I do think there are more who want the change than not. I do believe you have the community’s support,” she said.