Meskwaki Nation to Iowa school districts: No more native mascots
On Oct. 26, the Sac and Fox Tribe of the Mississippi in Iowa — also known as the Meskwaki Nation — issued a joint letter along with the Ponca Tribe of Nebraska, the National Congress of American Indians and the American Indian Council calling upon 24 school districts in Iowa with Native-themed mascots to retire them permanently.
Near Tama County, teams on that list include the Montezuma Braves, the HLV Warriors and the Clarksville Indians, who compete in the Iowa Star Conference with the Meskwaki Settlement School.
The letter details the formal position of the Meskwaki Nation as “against the use of Native American terms or images or symbols for sports or other marketing uses.” Over the past year, the Meskwaki Nation led efforts to encourage name changes at the Marion Independent School District and the Camanche Community School District, and both retired their “Indians” mascots as a result.
Linn County also made a similar change to the name of a creek and a county park that previously used the term squaw, a derogatory word used against Native American women.
The park is now known as Wanatee Park and the creek as Wanatee Creek. Both were named after the late Jean Adeline Morgan Wanatee, a Meskwaki tribal member who was a women’s rights activist, Meskwaki language specialist and an acclaimed artist.
The recent joint letter from the Meskwaki Nation asks school leaders to listen to the collective call of Tribal Nations for inclusion over individuals seeking to retain stereotypical mascots.
“The will of Indian Country is clear – Native “themed” mascots and the dehumanizing stereotypes they perpetuate must go,” the letter reads. “Out of respect for tribal sovereignty, we ask that you heed the voices of tribal leaders representing hundreds of Tribal Nations and the organizations that serve their citizens – not the voices of a few select individuals – when seeking to understand where Indian Country broadly stands on this issue.”
Two other large school districts in Iowa, Indianola and Mason City, are currently engaged in discussions about potentially changing their mascots.
In Mason City, the Globe Gazette has reported that the school board is close to a consensus in favor of retiring their Mohawks mascot. In Indianola, however, the Des Moines Register has reported that three new school board candidates who oppose changing the Indians mascot were elected on Tuesday.
As Iowa’s only federally recognized Native American tribe, leaders from the Meskwaki Nation asked that school districts involved in the mascot change process include them in the discussion.
“We invite you to begin a dialogue with us so you can learn about contemporary Tribal Nations and peoples and why these mascots degrade us, misrepresent who we are, and dismiss the many important contributions we have made – and continue to make – to this great country,” the statement reads. “Moreover, know that we are committed to working with you to expand and strengthen the curriculum your schools teach future generations of Iowans about Tribal Nations and peoples, particularly the undersigned Nations.”
A local perspective
Jonas Bear is a 2016 graduate of the Meskwaki Settlement School in Tama County. He is currently studying business at Haskell Indian Nations University with hopes of making a career in the fitness and recreation industry.
Bear spent his high school career playing multiple team sports with the Meskwaki Warriors.
He described how meaningful it was to compete with a team that carries his tribe’s name, colors and a mascot that represents his people.
“You realize people on your team aren’t just some guy that moved to town. They’re your cousins and neighbors. They’re a part of your tribe and are people who have very similar experiences to you,” he said.
Bear believes that schools, especially those now taking the steps to retire Native themed mascots, have a duty to reevaluate and improve how children are taught about Native American people.
“I’ve heard so many stories from people talking like, ‘We had a glance over in school about what happened to Native Americans.’ The story is often, ‘We came, they lost, we won, it’s our land now.’ It’s skimmed over in history books,” he said.
The recent movement to retire mascots at the professional and high school levels has been a step in the right direction, according to Bear, but the deeper issue of Native people being erased from American culture and history still persists.
“I hope people realize that it’s not about mascots,” Bear said. “It’s not about football or basketball or any other sport. It’s about us and our representation in society and in the world,” he said. “Teach about us, learn about us. Have some empathy in the situation and understand why it’s so demeaning and belittling when you use those mascots and try to tell us that you’re honoring us, because it’s not honoring.”
Within the Tama-Toledo community, imagery past and present has been controversial in its own right. The former Tama School District carried the Tamahawk mascot until a consolidation with Toledo in the 1960s, when the new combined district became the South Tama County Trojans.
The Trojans logo, which is still in use today and is ubiquitous in the community, was a work of art created by Meskwaki tribal member Adolph Bear in the late 1960s when he was a student at South Tama.
To this day, a large welcome sign depicts a Native American man wearing a war bonnet at the southern entrance to Tama, and a similar image sits mounted on a sign along Business Highway 30 advertising the former King Tower restaurant. The sign was recently refurbished and drew criticism from some Meskwaki community members when the Tama News-Herald reported that it had been reinstalled.
Yolanda Pushetonequa is a Meskwaki tribal member who attended primary and secondary school at South Tama County and is now a parent to a daughter in Pre-K at the Meskwaki Settlement School.
Pushetonequa, who was recently elected to the Meskwaki Tribal Council, spoke to the News-Chronicle about her personal experiences and opinions and not on behalf of the Tribal Council.
“Our Native staff being in the (Meskwaki Settlement School) is huge,” she said. “I can only imagine what that experience is like to have a Native teacher. My daughter lives in a time when she’ll get to see so many Native adults and youth just fill their whole classrooms, and they get to be themselves and feel that their experience is normal.”
Pushetonequa is encouraged by recent changes and activism that have driven the mascot retirement movement as well as the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women campaign and recent efforts by Secretary Deb Haaland to investigate residential boarding school sites throughout the country.
“We’re just in a stage of releasing a lot of that oppression by these social movements, and they’re all helping each other,” Pushetonequa said. “We’re in a time where we’re reevaluating the big picture around imagery — the places certain imagery was derived from and the reasons they came about.”
She then turned her focus to a specific aforementioned local matter.
“That’s where you see pictures like the sign out front of the King Tower Cafe. I doubt any tribal group was involved in building that sign. It’s a relic of an era of American history, of Tama County history, where that imagery was okay, and it was a selling point, Pushetonequa said. “They were okay with it back then, and that’s okay that they made that choice for themselves. And it’s okay that we’re in a time now where we’re making new choices, and we’re learning from our past actions.”
Both Bear and Pushetonequa admitted that they didn’t always recognize Native themed mascots as an important issue, but as they matured and saw some of the most egregious examples, they changed their minds.
“Obviously, you want to listen to the people that say that they are hurting. So things like the tomahawk chop and the Chief Wahoo image come to mind. There was never a time I wasn’t disgusted by Chief Wahoo. Even children know how sick that is. It’s just reprehensible that grown adult Americans would even defend that and ignore it when Native youth are asking to please stop,” Pushetonequa said. “These teams and communities and their leadership who still have Native themed mascots in place, it says a lot about them and where they are at and who they are as people. I love seeing swift measures for change being taken, and it’s disturbing when people fight against it. It’s the biggest victory in the world when they finally come to terms and let it go. And letting go of a mascot is nothing compared to what Indigenous people have been through in this country. We’re still experiencing that and still paying the price of colonialism and the actions by those ancestors. We’re paying the price with our lives and our health and our bodies.”