Some consider the Pocatello High School mascot to be a dignified tribute to Native Americans, while others insist it’s flat-out racist.
Either way, the time of the Pocatello Indians may have come at last.
The Pocatello-Chubbuck School District 25 Board of Trustees is scheduled to consider an administrative request to retire the mascot during a meeting at 11 a.m. Tuesday at the district’s main office on Pole Line Road, according to a press release. The district said the board may make a final decision on whether to retire the Indians mascot at a meeting scheduled for 5:30 p.m. Sept. 15, also at the district’s main office. Both meetings are open to the public.
District administrators, accompanied by members of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes who serve on the Fort Hall Business Council, explained their position to school board members during a Sept. 3 meeting.
“The debate has been part of an important local and national dialogue for many years now,” Board of Trustees Chairman Dave Mattson stated in a press release. “We appreciate the continued discussions and respectful relationship that we have cultivated with the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes’ leadership to address the representation of Poky’s mascot over the past several decades. Our obligation as the governing body of the school district is to listen to the recommendation being presented and then, after thoughtful and careful deliberation, make a final decision regarding any next steps moving forward.”
Kevin Callahan, acting chairman of the Fort Hall Business Council, released a statement voicing his support for the school district’s consideration of the change.
“We are very pleased about the direction of this meeting today and we support the recommendation to retire the Pocatello Indians mascot,” Callahan stated in the press release. “We look forward to working together on any next steps once the school board has the opportunity to consider the recommendation and make a final decision.”
School district spokesperson Courtney Fisher said the district will address specific details of the proposal, such as the timeline for making and implementing a decision and the potential cost of updating facilities and uniforms with a new mascot after the Tuesday meeting. She invited the public to submit comments by email at email@example.com.
“The district wanted to give a heads-up to our community that this is something that’s going to be on the agenda for the next several meetings,” Fisher said.
To Mark Edwards, who retired in 2009 as a PHS math and science teacher, serious discussions about retiring the Indians name are long overdue. When he first started teaching at the high school in 1992, Edwards saw references to Oske, who was a goofy-looking brave with a red face and a ridiculous smile. He said the drill team, the Indianettes, would also do a fake war dance and pretend to shoot arrows at opposing teams.
Early in his tenure at PHS, Edwards became the adviser for the Hispanic club, called La Raza. He broadened his club’s mission to multicultural awareness in general, dramatically increasing its diversity and membership, and changed the name to Unity Club. Several Native Americans in the club said they felt offended by the Indians mascot, so Edwards approached the school’s administration about changing it. Edwards said his members’ concerns fell on deaf ears at that time.
“I am absolutely behind a name change,” Edwards said, adding he also supported the removal of some of the more offensive school traditions of the past.
Don Cotant graduated from PHS in 1958 and went on to have a 25-year career working at the school in various capacities, including as its principal from 2000 through 2014. Cotant said he’s puzzled by the perceived need to change the symbol now.
Cotant said the symbol was always treated with dignity within the walls of PHS and only inspired racism among members of opposing teams.
“We’ve seen signs when we’ve gone into other buildings that have not had good references to us and we’ve asked those people to take them down,” Cotant said.
The school district’s decision comes in the midst of national protests about race relations, prompted by the death of George Floyd, a Black man, at the hands of white Minneapolis police officers. Floyd was pinned beneath three officers — one who pressed his knee against Floyd’s neck for more than eight minutes — and suffocated.
Cotant believes the district may be responding to external pressure in response to the current political environment. He’s concerned about what will happen with historic signs and infrastructure bearing the Indians symbol. He also fears changing the mascot could represent a slippery slope — he reasons the neon sign displayed on Main Street from Pocatello’s former Chief Theater, for example, may be next on the chopping block.
“Where does it end?” Cotant asked.
His granddaughter, Amber Browning, graduated from PHS in 2018 and shares his views on preserving the Indians name.
“It’s just tradition,” said Browning, who was a member of the PHS cheerleading team. “I think it is dignified. … It is not disrespectful in any way to the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. Things that were seen as disrespectful have been gotten rid of.”
A spokeswoman for the Tribes could not be reached Friday for additional comment.
Tia Galloway, a 2006 PHS graduate, said the high school has been like her second home since her early childhood. Her father taught for 30 years at the school and coached football and track. Her mother was a member of the Indianettes drill team, back when members still wore decorative headdresses.
Galloway lived in the Century district when she started high school but transferred to PHS, even though it meant sitting out of sports for a year due to the closed boundaries.
“There was never a question of where I was going to school,” Galloway said.
She believes PHS is a special school because its student body is tightly knit, with few cliques, and generous: She recalled when students raised funds to buy coats for their janitors.
Galloway believes it will be a sad day if the mascot is retired, but she’s somewhat neutral on the issue. She said it may be best to change the name if the group that PHS is seeking to recognize doesn’t consider it an honor.
In her view, the school’s traditions are strong and will live on regardless of the mascot’s name. If possible, Galloway would like some of the historic signs to be left in place, or at least preserved, if the name is changed. She’s heard some people suggest the bison as an option for a new mascot.
Galloway believes the bison may represent a good middle ground position that isn’t offensive but still recognizes the school’s heritage.