Editor’s note: This is the second of a three-part series by Shaw Media Illinois investigating the use of Native American mascots and imagery in Illinois schools.
Over the past three decades, at least seven high schools in Illinois have dropped Native American mascots or imagery. In each case, it was a decision made by the school’s board or administration that met with controversy.
Tradition is valuable, but can be excruciating to part ways with.
On June 15, the Naperville Community Unit School District 203 Board voted, 5-2, at its meeting to cease use of the nickname Redskins at Naperville Central High School after 54 years in response to complaints that its use was a racial slur against Native Americans.
James Yellowbank, coordinator of the Indian Treaty Rights Committee in Chicago, said he believed it to be the first time in Illinois that a school scrapped an offensive Native American name. Yellowbank, who said the decision was “historical,” was among the 150 in attendance at the meeting, and at the time had been unsuccessful in persuading the University of Illinois to eliminate Chief Illiniwek, who had danced at halftime of football and basketball games.
Of the five board members who voted for the change, one said he would “rather give up a little of our tradition and some heritage” than to “diminish someone’s respect and dignity of their lifestyle,” while another responded with “only the people affected know how demeaning and degrading the impact is.”
On the other side was a student who said 93% of the students polled that year favored continued use of Redskins.
“We should listen to the majority and not let the minority make our decision,” she said. To her, the name meant “pride, honesty, courage and integrity.”
In October, about 2,400 students and facility voted from nine choices on a new mascot, and Naperville Central become home of the Redhawks.
Marist High School in Chicago began phasing out the Redskins name, symbol and mascot (a student dressed in Indian garb and warpaint) because it was offensive to many Native Americans over the six years before switching to the RedHawks.
Before the change, Marist had been operating essentially without a nickname and mascot for that time, although Redskins still was listed as part of the school’s entry in the Illinois High School Association directory and used by media. In fact, during the 1996-97 athletic season, the freshman football team was the only squad that still had uniforms containing the old nickname.
In October, the board of Niles Township High School District 219 voted, 6-1, to drop the Indians team name at Niles West High School.
“This is not a popular decision, but every once in a while you do what you think is right,” said one board member.
At least 200 people attended the meeting, with most of them – including students, parents and alumni – speaking in favor of keeping the name. When students at Niles West voted the previous week on the issue, 67% voted to keep the name.
“We are not a trophy to be hung on a wall. This doesn’t honor us,” said Matthew Beaudet, president of the Illinois Native American Bar Association.
He and others said the name invokes images of a feathered, tomahawk-waving warrior, which they said misrepresents the history and culture of Native Americans.
The school had previously eliminated the image of a warrior in a headdress as its mascot in 1989, while also ending a tradition of a student dressed as a Native American and beginning to label school uniforms only as “Niles West.” Practices such as honoring student-athletes as “Savage of the Week” were also banned.
The board approved the name Wolves in April of 2001 after months of input from students, staff and community residents via both a student vote and internet poll
In August, both Bloomington and Chatham Glenwood high schools made changes to their mascots, the latter also choosing a different nickname.
Bloomington dropped its logo, a Native American chief head, because it was deemed offensive, but students at that time voted not to replace the Purple Raiders nickname.
“It was a courageous decision by the school board, because it was not a popular idea with the community,” said BHS Principal Barry Reilly at the time.
The picture of the Native American on the gym floor was removed that summer as was a large medallion outside of the south gym.
“The Native American mascot was seen as degrading in some cultures, and the school board did not want to be associated with that,” Reilly said. “I do not see (having a mascot) as a necessity ... the school will function just fine without it. People do not come to sporting events to watch the mascots, they come to watch the players.”
Glenwood, just south of Springfield, changed from Redskins to Titans after what was described to be a decade-long outcry that forced the school board to change the name. The Ball-Chatham board voted 5-2 to get rid of Indian mascots and nicknames in district schools, including Glenwood Junior High also moving to Titans from Braves.
In February, the board of Huntley School District 158 voted unanimously to drop the Redskins nickname and mascot used by the high school and middle school teams rather than spend money to defend them in court.
According to the school board president at the time, the school was approached early in 2001 by representatives of the Native American Bar Association, who said Redskins was a racial slur and threatened to sue the district if the name was not changed. Shortly after the threat was made, the board voted to both keep the Redskins name and also take away restrictions on its use on uniforms.
Attempts were made thereafter to reach a compromise, but in November of 2001 NABA filed a civil rights suit. It was dropped a week before the board decision after it was said an agreement was made to change the name.
Huntley students voted for the new nickname to be Red Raiders with a Red Stallion logo.
In August, the Lemont High School District 210 board voted to remove the nickname Injuns as well as its mascot due to the fact it was offensive to Native Americans.
However, soon after a group of alumni and community members organized a petition to restore both.
“It’s so hard for me to understand,” said a Lemont graduate. “We hold the Native Americans in the highest honor and always respect them. It was never, ever taught to me as a child as something to make fun of or ridicule.”
Lemont officials had quietly done away with much of the school’s insignias over the previous seven years, including purchasing new uniforms that did not display the Injuns name or logo.
“A mascot that uses a pejorative term for a racial group is not sensitive or respectful,” said the school board president at the time.
Lemont called its teams the Indians until the mid-1960s when a surplus of schools using the same mascot prompted the change to Injuns. In 2005, a community vote narrowly favored the name Titans over the Engines, a near homophone of the outgoing mascot.
Lemont went without a nickname for the 2005-06 school year, as Titans was never officially adopted. However, the Lemont sports teams never took to competition as the Titans, as elections brought in new school board members who fulfilled their promise to restore the Indians mascot.
The face and headdress are still gone as the school uses an “LHS” logo with a single feather and a flame in reference to the Potawatomi tribe that once inhabited the region, but the Indians nickname has stayed. The word “Potawatomi” means “keeper of the fire.”
In April, Maine West High School ended its long tradition of having a student dressed in a Native American-themed costume perform at football games and pep rallies. The decision came after Native Americans raised objections to the mascot after viewing the images on social media.
At the time, Principal Audrey Haugan said in an email to parents that the school wanted to honor its tradition “while eliminating practices that were increasingly viewed as insensitive or demeaning.”
Also, a spokesperson for Maine Township High School District 207 said, “It has never been our intention to be disrespectful of Native Americans or Native American culture. I would say the leadership team decided it was better to discontinue the practice than risk giving offense and redirect attention from all the positive things happening at Maine West.”
Maine West still uses the Warriors nickname, but has moved from a depiction of a Native American with a feather in their hair to just an “M” and “W” in blue and gold as its logo.
In June of 2019, Brett Clark, head of communications for the district, said, “As we learn new information that this is offensive to the people we were trying to respect, we changed our position.
“We’re moving forward, and we believe that’s a respectful path.”