On Tuesday, members of Tampa Bay Native American groups will speak at a school board meeting against Native mascots being used in Hillsborough County, an issue that has been a source of controversy in their community for generations.
Six Hillsborough schools changed their names in 2019, citing cultural changes, but mascots and imagery related to the Chamberlain “Chiefs'' and East Bay “Indians” high schools still harp on Indigenous tropes. Spokespeople from Hillsborough schools have claimed that while the mascots remain in place at those schools, the schools themselves have become more sensitive to cultural issues.
But Native leaders of the Title VI Parent Advisory Committee and the Florida Indigenous Alliance (FIA) say that the schools retaining the mascots is unacceptable. Representatives from the groups have been speaking out at school board meetings for years, including several times in 2021. They plan to speak yet again during Tuesday’s public comment section of the school board meeting, scheduled for 6 p.m. at 901 E Kennedy Blvd.
Shannon Durant, chairperson of the Title VI Parents Advisory group told Creative Loafing Tampa Bay that the issue is about appropriation of culture, and whitewashing the history of suffering Native people have faced in the United States.
“Chamberlain used to do a whole Native American homecoming, where their homecoming court would dress up as little females in the buckskin dresses, and the boys that were on the homecoming court would dress in buckskin shirts with the war bonnets,” Durant, who is of the west coast’s Mechoopda Tribe said. “And the principal would also dress up in this outfit.”
Photos on social media and from newspaper clippings from the ‘90s show seemingly non-Native people dressing up in Native regalia at Chamberlain throughout the years, practicing the appropriation that Durant mentions.
“They wouldn’t want us creating institutions that degrade their history and culture this way, so why should this be allowed in our schools?” Durant asks.
The Native American Guardian’s Association—an organization that shares the right-wing group Turning Point U.S.A. videos on their website—has claimed that the imagery honors Natives and wants to protect them.
“Go East Bay Indians and Chamberlain Chiefs,” the group wrote in a Facebook post about the situation. “The tides are turning why be quick to erase Native American identity. Thank you for all you do.”
When Hillsborough County Schools made changes to six schools in 2019, it was made clear that the county understood the impact this practice has on people from the Indigenous community.
“The current mascots do not respect every culture and every person in our communities. Using Native American images and mascots can easily reduce living human beings to the level of a cartoon, caricature or stereotype,” the school district said in a statement to WFLA. “Even when there is no bad intent, these images can carry on and spread some of the symbols of the most painful parts of our great country’s history.”
Yet, Hillsborough Schools continued to allow Chamberlain and East Bay schools to continue the use of Native mascots.
Last month, the Tampa Bay Times reported that Title VI community meetings about the situation with the school board have been stalled. Superintendent Addison Davis said he postponed the meetings because of COVID-19, many other types of meetings and events still take place, while Durant and others are left to wonder when their voices will be heard.
CL contacted Erin Maloney, Department Manager of Media Outreach at Hillsborough County Public Schools for comment about the situation.
“While the Superintendent and board paused the process earlier this year, district staff continues to engage with student groups and members of the community to have this important discussion,” Maloney told CL in an email. “Our district respects and honors diversity and inclusion and looks forward to receiving more input from all stakeholders.”
Sheridan Murphy of the Florida Indigenous Alliance said that it’s time for the U.S. and Hillsborough County to reckon with the practice of celebrating genocide.
“With 7,300 Native babies found in mass graves found at concentration camps called ‘Residential schools’ from Kamloops, British Columbia to Lincoln, Nebraska, maybe it's time for the United States and the Hillsborough County School Board to acknowledge that Native peoples are human beings,” Murphy told CL. “No other group of human beings have their culture, history and spirituality trivialized, mocked and degraded in a circus-like atmosphere simply for fun and games."
Murphy said that while alumni, parents and students at East Bay and Chamberlain have fun and games with Native culture, it was illegal for Native people to practice aspects of their own culture until 1978. “The mascots need to end, now,” he added.
While suffering through the utilization of the Native mascots for generations in Hillsborough, Indigenous people have been denied access to practicing their own culture in Hillsborough Schools.
Durant tells the story of Native children being barred from wearing eagle feathers during school graduations. Eagle feathers are commonly given to children when they are born and then during life’s major events, such as high school graduation.
“There were parents I spoke with whose little girl was at her graduation in Hillsborough, and she had her eagle feather on,” Durant said. “She was told by a school official to remove it and she said no, because she thought that she had permission to wear it from the school. She was told she was wrong and that she had to remove it. So she's in tears taking it off, because she didn't want to get in trouble.”
It wasn’t until 2018 that Hillsborough Schools announced that they had begun allowing students to wear eagle feathers in their graduation caps.
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