Is Local High School Mascot Racist? Debate Over ‘Warrior’ Image Intensifies. - GV Wire - Explore. Explain. Expose
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Is Local High School Mascot Racist? Debate Over ‘Warrior’ Image Intensifies.



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The Warrior mascot of Fresno High School is under fire from critics who say that the cartoon of a Native American man in war paint is racist and must be removed.

But the image also has its share of supporters who claim that the mascot is a beloved tradition that should not be cast aside.

Is it just about a local high school’s mascot, or does the dispute also speak to the issues of racism and cultural insensitivity that have roiled the nation in 2020?

Probably a little of both.

This local/global issue will be aired out starting at 5:30 p.m. Thursday, when Fresno Unified School District, which has been meeting with parents and students on the issue, has scheduled a town hall meeting.

Two of the invited speakers are authors of opposing petitions on Jamie Nelson, who identifies as a member of the Yokut people whose lands once include the site of Fresno High, and Joshua Washburn, a Fresno High alumni.

As of Wednesday morning, Nelson’s petition had garnered more than 4,800 signatures while Washburn’s petition had more than 1,600.

Another panel member is trustee Carol Mills, who was just re-elected to her fifth term on the board representing the Fresno High area. Mills did not respond to an interview request from GV Wire this week.

California Outlawed Racist School Mascot

Five years ago California took a stand against racist school mascots when it outlawed the name Redskins. Three of the four high schools that had the mascot are in the Valley: Chowchilla Union High School in Madera County, Tulare Union High School in Tulare County, and Gustine High School in Merced County.

While the schools had to stop using the name by 2017, they were not required to delete the images if they were embedded in gymnasium floors or on other structures, until such time as facilities or maintenance work could include their removal.

Attention also has focused on professional sports teams, particularly Washington, D.C.’s football team whose owner said he would never change the moniker. But in the wake of George Floyd’s killing by police in Minneapolis in May and as pressure from sponsors mounted, the team took a new name, the Washington Football Team, which will remain in effect until another mascot is selected.

Other pro teams have retained their Native American mascot names, including the Atlanta Braves, Chicago Blackhawks, and Cleveland Indians, whose Chief Wahoo cartoon logo of a Native American was deemed a “red Sambo” that’s highly offensive to Native Americans. The Cleveland Indians stopped using that logo in 2019.

Nelson said his petition drive may have started in June, but there’s been vocal and growing opposition to using Native Americans as school mascots for more than half a century through various organizations.

Fearful to Speak Out

But for Nelson, who is Yokut Mono Choinumni through his father, it’s personal and local. Nelson said he was reluctant as a seventh grader to attend Tenaya Middle School in the 1980s because the school’s mascot, the Braves, is represented by Native American imagery. For Native American kids, such images as mascots can prompt humiliation and embarrassment.

But like many youngsters, he didn’t know how to speak out and feared the abuse that might follow if he did.

It was as a result of the Black Lives Matter rally in Fresno in June, which protested Floyd’s killing, that Nelson felt more people might be willing to consider how hurtful the Fresno High mascot is to California’s indigenous people.

But Nelson, who represents Valley Natives for Change, said he thinks the district has dragged its feet and made a poor decision by scheduling the town hall meeting.

“It only gives the opportunity for bigoted minds to express their ideas, and it allows for the idea that ‘redface is OK,’ ” he said. “We wouldn’t have this town hall meeting if it was blackface.”

Dialogue Is Important

But Nicholas Dodson said he thinks the town hall, and other talking sessions with students and other stakeholders, need to happen so that there can be a dialogue and, he hopes, more opportunity for people to hear from and understand each other better.

Dodson, a Fresno High alumnus who is one of the town hall panelists, said he felt firsthand the sting of the school’s mascot. As a high schooler he was talked into playing the role, and later came to regret it.

People who aren’t Native Americans don’t understand that there is a religious component to war paint and feathers that have nothing to do high school activities, he said.

“I don’t think it’s too much … to require that each peoples, each group of of cultures, be allowed to define themselves,” he said. “I put it to the (Fresno High Student) Senate last night when I said to them, ‘If I were to start a high school and I were to use Jesus Christ as my mascot and I were to put him in robes and put blood on his hands and make him carry a cross across the football field at half time, that would be blasphemous, I would be all over the news.

“It would be inappropriate. It would be disrespectful. And so when we have these native mascots that come out in feathers and paint, these are sacred religious items. My children have feathers. But they had to earn them through ceremony and prayer. When we put paint on her face, we do it for specific reasons that have nothing to do with a football game or the scoreboard. It has everything to do with how we conduct ourselves in our lives and with the spirits, with the Creator, and with our ancestors. So if we begin to look at it like that, it becomes clear what needs to happen. I think all that’s left at that point is how we dialogue with each other.”

School Tradition Should Be Upheld

Washburn, whose daughter is the fourth generation of his family to attend Fresno High, said he supports keeping the mascot because of the traditions that have meant so much to Fresno High students and alumni, and what the Warrior mascot means to him.

“The logo stands for pretty much strength and everything, unity and bringing everyone together. It shouldn’t be dividing them or downgrading them … ,” he said. “I’ve never seen the Warrior mascot or logo as belittling or derogatory in any way.”

Washburn said he’s concerned that the proposal to change the mascot is part of the “cancel culture” that’s sweeping the nation, and which in Fresno has also manifested in a move to examine and possibly change the names of buildings or structures that are associated with slavery.

Instead of changing the names, Washburn said, he would advocate more education, whether it’s about the history of racism and slavery or the history of how Native Americans fared in California after the arrival of white settlers.

“Part of it right now is just like a whole national cleansing, is what they’re trying to do, remove logos, statues, stuff like that, and even names of buildings like the Meux Home and Kearney Park, they’re trying to erase that, just because they don’t confirm to their views or what they stand for,” he said. “We’ve got some slave history at Kearney and Meux Home, but why erase that history, why not learn from it? That’s why I would love to see schools embrace more Indian traditions and educate more.”

Fresno Unified Board Will Decide

The conversation about the Fresno High mascot won’t end with Thursday’s town hall meeting. Fresno Unified’s School Board will receive the community feedback in early December and then decide what the next steps will be, spokeswoman Amy Idsvoog said.

“Based on community concern over the Fresno High mascot, our board is expected to weigh in,” she said.

But might their decision be a foregone conclusion? Last month the board voted 6-1 for a resolution declaring the district to be an anti-racist institution. The resolution declared that racism harms student academic outcomes and emotional well-being.

The no vote by trustee Terry Slatic, who questioned the resolution’s intent, sparked at-times emotional responses from board president Keshia Thomas and trustees Veva Islas, Valerie Davis, Claudia Cazares and Elizabeth Jonasson Rosas — all women of color.

Nancy Price is a multimedia journalist for GV Wire. A longtime reporter and editor who has worked for newspapers in California, Florida, Alaska, Illinois and Kansas, Nancy joined GV Wire in July 2019. She previously worked as an assistant metro editor for 13 years at The Fresno Bee. Nancy earned her bachelor's and master's degrees in journalism at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. Her hobbies include singing with the Fresno Master Chorale and volunteering with Fresno Filmworks. You can reach Nancy at 559-492-4087 or Send an Email