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Preps

‘You are not honoring me’: Native American mascot debate reignites at Illinois high schools, Part 3

Advocacy groups, state reps push for awareness of Native American history

Editor's note: This is the third installment of a three-part series by Shaw Media Illinois investigating the use of Native American mascots and imagery in Illinois schools.

Mike Slattery didn’t grow up in Huntley. He didn’t attend Huntley schools, sit in the stands at Huntley football games, or cheer on the Huntley Redskins as a kid. 

He was, however, the Huntley head football coach 18 years ago when the district changed the high school mascot to Red Raiders. Even without those experiences, as the head coach, he felt it was important to support his players. His players, by and large, wanted to remain the Redskins. 

“They had nothing to compare it to, they were always the Huntley Redskins,” Slattery said. “They certainly didn’t want outsiders coming in and telling them what to do. I tried to support my players as best I could.”

Much has changed in Huntley since 2002. The community and the school experienced huge growth. In 2002, Huntley’s enrollment was about 700. Today, it’s about 3,000. The building itself has been expanded, too. 

Many students in the high school now weren’t born when the Redskins mascot was officially ousted during the spring of 2002. 

Brett Borchart is a 2002 Huntley grad, and was the quarterback on Huntley’s 2001 football team, which reached the IHSA Class 4A state semifinals – still the longest playoff run in program history. 

“It hurt,” Borchart said recently. “I was the fourth generation coming through the school, so to see [the mascot] just kind of go – definitely hurt. I didn’t really know how to react besides that. A little confused too.”

As debate about Native American mascots continues throughout the country, many kids in similar positions might be feeling the same confusion Borchart felt in 2002. In Illinois, numerous communities have started petitions against Native American mascots at their high schools. In Minooka, more than 17,000 people have signed a petition that was backed by actor Nick Offerman. 

In all, more than 50 Illinois high schools still sport Native American mascots, and five still use the term “Redskins.” 

In Huntley, in some ways the old mascot feels like ancient history. 

“You learn to move on,” Borchart said. “Am I mad about it still? No. It is what it is.”

***

According to news reports from 2001 and 2002, Huntley’s mascot changed largely because the Illinois Native American Bar Association filed a lawsuit against Huntley Community School District 158. 

The head of the American Indian Association of Illinois, Dorene Wiese, said similar lawsuits against Illinois high schools have disappeared over the ensuing two decades simply because the state’s American Indian community doesn’t have the funds to pursue a lawsuit against every school. 

“We don’t have the lawyers, we don’t have the money, we don’t have the political clout to get those schools changed,” Wiese said. “That’s why it has continued for so long.”

Wiese said the Illinois Native American Bar Association today has only a handful of members, mostly young lawyers just starting their careers. Current members of the bar association declined an interview request for this story, but did release a statement. 

“The Illinois Native American Bar Association supports the removal of Native American imagery from mascots and team names of all levels of sports teams,” the statement read. “The use of Native Americans as mascots has been shown to be harmful to our youth and students. Because our history is not properly taught in our schools, many people do not realize we are still a living group of people or understand that the imagery they use is a part of our culture and often has sacred meaning.”

Without that political clout, or legal funding, the question becomes how can advocacy groups influence schools to change these mascots? 

Using petitions to bring awareness to the cause has worked. People need to be vocal about no longer accepting stereotypes, Wiese said. 

Another answer could be through the state legislature. The Oregon State Board of Education prohibited such mascots in 2012. Maine banned Native American mascots at public schools in 2019. California banned the use of Redskins in 2017. 

In March, just prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, State Rep. Maurice West, D-Rockford, introduced a bill that would require high schools to complete a number of steps in order to keep their Native American mascots. 

The bill went on the back burner when the pandemic struck. The legislature did not meet for weeks, and when it did, pandemic-related bills became the priority. While House Bill 4783 has remained under review by the House Rules Committee, West said he plans to rewrite some significant aspects of it. 

West told Shaw Media Illinois that he hopes to have the new version of the bill ready in August or September. As the bill is written now, a high school would need written consent from a tribe based within 500 miles of the school in order to use a Native American mascot. Instead, when the bill is rewritten, West said, it will create a tribal commission made up of Native Americans who reside in Illinois. Like other commissions in Illinois, members would be selected by the governor, the Senate president, Senate minority leader, the speaker of the House and the House minority leader. 

The original bill, requiring consent from a tribe within 500 miles, was criticized because there are no federally recognized tribes in Illinois today. 

“In all of Illinois, we have 100,000 Indian people in Illinois,” Wiese said. “That would mean that none of us would be consulted.”

A commission would make decisions more locally focused. West envisions the commission setting the guidelines for what schools must do in order to keep their Native American mascots. 

“This is my vision: The high schools will have a strong relationship with this commission, and the commission will use their contacts to bring Native Americans or organizations such as the American Indian Center of Chicago, something of that nature, to come to the school and teach Native American history. Have a program here and there, to talk about the true essence of the history.”

Another key aspect West is planning for the rewritten bill is a ban on the Redskins mascot. Other Native American mascots, such as Indians, Warriors, Chiefs and Braves would need approval from the commission every few years. 

After the George Floyd protests, West said he was ready to ban all Native American mascots. He said some supporters of the bill questioned what that accomplished, other than angering people. 

“The focus is to make sure that our students are taught the true history of the Native American people of Illinois,” West said.  

***

Mike Slattery still teaches and coaches at Huntley, now as an assistant football coach. Slattery is four years from retirement. He knows he has changed over all these years. 

“That was some of the earliest controversies about nicknames and negativity toward racial groups,” Slattery said. “It was all new. As a coach and longtime athlete and player, [I] never thought of it in a negative context. But when there’s a group of people who are offended by it, you certainly have to listen.”

Slattery said the kids who went to Huntley before 2002, before the mascot change, will likely always – on some level – think of themselves as Huntley Redskins.

That doesn’t mean that those same people don’t change. 

“I have [former players] who come back and see me and they’re old enough now to know, ‘What’s in a name?’” Slattery said. 

Borchart, the quarterback from 2001, still lives in Huntley with his family. Borchart said his perspective has changed some. He understands the other side of the argument now. 

“You don’t ever lose a tradition, people are always going to remember it,” Borchart said. “You kind of move on to a new one.”

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