“Stupid political correctness is killing us!” was one longtime local’s response after the school superintendent of Teton County, Idaho, sacked “Redskins” as the school’s mascot. As a fifth-generation resident and Teton High School graduate himself, Superintendent Monte Woolstenhulme said he figured that the move would distress some people. Yet nothing could have prepared him for the community’s fervid response.
As the head volleyball coach at Teton High, I’ve always been bothered that I teach at one of the last remaining schools in the country to use Native American mascots. More than 40 years ago in 1972, Stanford University, where I was a student, switched from the Indians to the Cardinal. Lois Amsterdam, Stanford’s ombudsperson, noted that the name Indians was never meant to “defile a racial group. Rather, it was a reflection of our society’s retarded understanding, dulled perception and clouded vision.”
The public outcry here in reaction to the name change was loudest on social media, and a petition circulated to reverse the decision was signed by 410 people within 24 hours. To put that in perspective, a total of just 364 people voted in last May’s school board election. Even after leaders of the local Shoshone-Bannock Tribe supported discarding the Redskin moniker, more than 200 people dressed in Redskin gear showed up at a school board meeting to demand its retention.
“It’s our constitutional right to say whatever we want,” people argued, “and if someone is offended, then that’s their problem.” At the conclusion of that emotional school board meeting, Woolstenhulme recommended tabling a decision on the mascot until further notice.
The Redskin debate has been one of the hottest in a simmering slew of issues in recent years. It’s what happens when one of the most conservative communities in the West gets discovered by outdoor enthusiasts and retirees, some of them liberal thinkers from different parts of the country.
Most of us here live together in relative harmony. But just when I think it’s not that bad, a truck pulls up next to me while I’m dropping off my 11-year-old daughter at her 4-H archery club, and a small, freckled boy hops out of a side door whose window has a bumper sticker that says “Gorpers Suck.” For those not in the know, a gorper refers to an environmentalist, or perhaps a hiker or biker.
When does someone’s freedom of speech infringe on another person’s well-being? When is it just plain mean and mindless to insult people you don’t know?
I have the utmost reverence for the past and its cherished symbols, but it’s time to move forward. I believe Woolstenhulme’s decision was a good-faith attempt to accept and understand another culture and set rules for effective and non-threatening communications. Now it’s up to “us” and “them” and everyone in between to decide whether united we’ll stand, or divided we’ll fall.
Sue Muncaster is a freelance writer, coach, food activist and adventurous mom. A version of this essay first appeared in High Country News (hcn.org).