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After 90 Years, Rural Oregon School District To Drop Indian Mascot

Brian Bull

After 90 years, the Marcola School District is dropping its mascot, the Mohawk Indians.  While some locals saw it as a point of pride, others deemed it irrelevant and an offensive stereotype of Native Americans. 

While the decision is generally seen as progressive and keeping with changing cultural attitudes, KLCC’s Brian Bull reports there’s still mixed feelings in the Marcola community.  

Inside the Mohawk High School gym, students in black and orange practice basketball.  Prominently featured in the center of the hardwood floor is the profile of a Mohawk Indian. 

Credit Brian Bull / KLCC
Mohawk Middle Schoolers play against visiting team McKenzie in one of the remaining games where the Indians mascot will be featured in the school.

Superintendent Bill Watkins points out other displays of the mascot.

“…you could see the carpets going into the gym where it says “Mohawk Indians” on there.  Even if we were to keep the name “Indians”, the image with the arrow going through the “M” would have to go away," he explains.  

Watkins also points out a large pennant on the wall, and an arch displaying the mascot name.

" So as you look around the gym, “Mohawk Indians” up there, that’s gotta come off…” 

Watkins says for a while, they considered keeping the name. 

Oregon schools can keep Indian-themed mascots if they work with a local, federally-recognized tribe.  But for some – including Watkins – the name was just not relevant enough to keep.

Credit Brian Bull / KLCC
Marcola School Superintendent Bill Watkins, outside the high school's gymnasium.

“We actually had a Memorandum of Agreement with the Confederated Tribes of the Grande Ronde because we had a geographical connection: the Mohawk Valley," says Watkins. 

"Except Mohawks – as we all well know – they’re an East Coast tribe.” 

Watkins adds there are hardly any Native American students here. 

After several meetings, the Marcola community was surveyed on what to do with the Indians mascot. 

“It was 52 percent to change it, and 48 percent says “leave it alone.”  

Factor in even a slight margin of error, and you’ve a pretty tight split in this rural community of 1500 people. 

Jeff Litle is the school district’s Director of Transportation and Facilities, and one of those who wanted to keep the Mohawk Indians.

“My grandma, grampa both graduated from here in the 30s.  My dad graduated from here in the 60s. I graduated in ‘90. It goes back a long ways for my family in particular, and I know that there’s other families out here as well, but…it’s bittersweet.”  

Credit Brian Bull / KLCC
The Marcola School District's Transportation and Facilities Director, Jeff Litle.

Litle says he never associated – or intended -- anything derogatory with the “Indians” mascot.  But he acknowledges this is all part of the conversation.

“It’s much bigger than just here in the state of Oregon, it’s a national thing," he tells KLCC.  

"And I mean, if you look around with the Washington Redskins, and some of those others, sooner or later it was going to happen anyway.” 

It’s a tough transition for Lydel’s daughter, RayChell.  Here at a middle school basketball game against McKenzie, the 8th grade softball and basketball player says she’d be a fourth generation “Indian” in her family were it not for the change.

“It’ll be tough.  Like really, really, tough.  ‘Cuz I’ve been a Mohawk Indian for eight years out now…I just really wanted to graduate as an Indian.” 

Another student athlete, ninth grader Peyton Robinson, is somewhat resigned to the switch.

“I understand why we have to change it, but...it sucks.   I am proud to be Indian.  I think it shows that we’re strong, and we’re gonna fight.  Personally, if the Native Americans feel that we are disrespecting them, in any way, I hope they would tell us.  Because we try our hardest to show that we have spirit, and we respect that.” 

Credit Mohawk High School Community Facebook page.
An undated photo of an earlier version of the Indians mascot in the Mohawk High School gym.

While many staunch supporters of mascots are non-Indian, there are some tribes who don’t mind…as long as the cultural and historical significance of native people are recognized.

“We are proud of the fact that there are Indians, and Braves, and Warriors, and Chiefs out there.” 

Justin Martin is a tribal member and Government Relations Consultant for the Confederated Tribes of the Grande Ronde.

“And we want to keep that level of understanding or visibility out there, so people continue to understand the value that Oregon Indian tribes really offer the state.  And the country for that matter.” 

Martin says his tribe isn’t working anymore on the mascot issue with the Marcola School District, but are collaborating on a tribal curriculum for Marcola students. 

Martin says there are three Oregon schools working with them on keeping their Indian mascots…which provides a more “teachable moment” on the First Nations than a complete ban could.

Credit Brian Bull / KLCC
Yearbooks through the decades show the prominence of the Mohawk Indians mascot. Soon, a committee will decide the district's new mascot.

Meanwhile, Superintendent Watkins says the Marcola community needs to work fast on the next step:

“We think that by the end of March we should have a new mascot.  Because we have to redo our gym floor, and the mascot would be illustrated on the gym floor as well, so we’re going to change everything over this summer.”

A new floor will cost thousands of dollars. One Marcola resident says he’s got a way to help pay for it and cater to nostalgic alumni.  Brandon Mattox is selling several hundred t-shirts sporting a Mohawk Indians logo from the late 80s. 

“Our idea is saying, 'Y’know, this is a commemorative shirt.  This could be one of the last runs of Mohawk Indians apparel that you see.' 

"As somebody with a lot of pride and an alumni, I really want to help get these shirts sold and make some money for the school district.” 

Mattox says he used to defend the Mohawk Indians mascot but after some reflection, now feels it’s a caricature that should go.  He says whatever comes next, this can be a chance for tomorrow’s class of Marcola students to make history. 

Credit Brian Bull / KLCC
Brandon Mattox, a Mohawk High School alum and former booster of the Indians mascot. He says he's changed his views on Native American themed sports imagery, and supports adopting a new mascot for his alma mater.

“And this group of kids that are in this school right now get to say, “I was there when this started.” 

"In 50 years --when we are whatever we’re going to be -- those people’s grandchildren are graduating from Mohawk, they can say, “I’m proud to be this”, and their grandparents can say, “I was there when it happened.” 

As to what will replace the Indians…that’ll be up to a new committee being formed.  Some suggested names are the "Outlaws" or "Mavericks".   

Copyright 2017, KLCC. 

Brian Bull is an assistant professor of journalism at the University of Oregon, and remains a contributor to the KLCC news department. He began working with KLCC in June 2016.   In his 27+ years as a public media journalist, he's worked at NPR, Twin Cities Public Television, South Dakota Public Broadcasting, Wisconsin Public Radio, and ideastream in Cleveland. His reporting has netted dozens of accolades, including four national Edward R. Murrow Awards (22 regional),  the Ohio Associated Press' Best Reporter Award, Best Radio Reporter from  the Native American Journalists Association, and the PRNDI/NEFE Award for Excellence in Consumer Finance Reporting.
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