The Rev. Le Anne Clausen de Montes, a mother of four Indigenous children, has grappled with the Mason City school district’s mascot for years.
Until recently, Clausen de Montes and her children faced a common issue for Native American students in the northern Iowa community: Should they support their school and the “Mohawks” mascot? Or should they push back against a mascot they felt was insensitive for Indigenous people?
In one instance, she says her son wanted to participate in a basketball clinic hosted by the high school, but the program was called “The Tribe” and there were arrows and feathers “all over the logo.” She said even her child in kindergarten received a T-shirt that said “the littlest Mohawk.”
“The presence of racial, ethnic stereotypes about Native Americans, the ones that are so common in the symbols that are used by a lot of high school mascots — whether it’s the feather, spears or pictures of Native Americans — all contribute to a climate that reinforces those stereotypes,” Clausen de Montes said.
Clausen de Montes’ children won’t have to make the choice between school activities and respecting their culture anymore. On Nov. 15, the Mason City school district decided to drop the “Mohawk” mascot name. The district will begin the search for a replacement in January, and it plans to have a new mascot selected by July 1, 2022.
“The board believes the use of the ‘Mohawk’ name as a mascot, and the use of Native American images, symbols and likenesses to portray any mascot is derogatory and a harmful stereotype of the Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe and all Native Americans,” read a statement provided to the Register, provided by Mason City Superintendent of Schools Dave Versteeg.
“The board acknowledges that the use of the ‘Mohawk’ name does not embrace the racial equality we strive to include in educating the students of this school district.”
Debate over the use of Native American-related mascots spans nationwide, withleaders of athletic programs from youth to professional sports grappling over their logos and team names. The Washington Football Team and the Cleveland Guardians, two professional teams that attracted national attention for their use of Indigenous-related mascots, decided in the past two years to remove Native American-related imagery and language from their branding.
Also this fall, the Sac and Fox Tribe of the Mississippi in Iowa — or the Meskwaki Nation — in late October called on 66 Iowa schools to retire their mascots.
“When taken as a whole, the will of the Indian Country is clear — Native ‘themed’ mascots and the dehumanizing stereotypes they perpetuate must go,” the statement read.
“Out of respect for tribal sovereignty, we ask that you heed the voices of tribal leaders representing hundreds of Tribal Nations and the organizations that serve their citizens — not the voices of a few select individuals — when seeking to understand where Indian Country broadly stands on the issue.”
The Des Moines Register identified 27 high schools with Indigenous-themed mascots from a list provided by the Iowa High School Athletic Association. That count does not include the Meskwaki Settlement School Warriors. The Sac and Fox Tribe’s list included elementary and middle schools as well.
Several high schools use the mascot of Warrior or Indian, including the Indianola Indians and Rockford Warriors. Most schools, but not all, with the Warrior mascot have done away with Native American-related imagery in favor of a medieval soldier instead. The same is true for schools with the mascot “Rebels.”
Other mascots range from the Keokuk Chiefs and Montezuma Braves to the Missouri Valley Big Reds and the Sigourney Savages.
Some districts have previously opted for change. Mason City considered a shift in mascot after Versteeg and school board president Lorrie Lala received a letter from Brendan White, the communication director for the Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe in New York.
“Secondary school systems and educational systems that promote ethnic stereotypes — despite the civil rights movement that took place decades ago — still have not fully embraced racial equality and continue to do an injustice and disservice to the young impressionable students under their guidance,” it read. “Their failure to take corrective action by immediately banning Native names and mascots only serves to perpetuate the negative and prejudicial treatment toward Native Americans and the contributions we have made and continue to make across the United States”
Mason City joins other Iowa schools that removed their Native-themed mascot or imagery. Norwalk kept the “Warrior” mascot but removed the spear and arrow from its logo in July 2020. Marion and Camanche both previously stopped using the “Indians” mascot.
There are holdouts. In Indianola, Indigenous representatives asked the district to change its Indians mascot. In early November, the school board elected three new members, all of whom favor keeping the current mascot.
The board has tabled that discussion until the new year, and no representatives would comment on either the mascot issue or the platforms of newly elected members when reached by the Register.
The reckoning with these nicknames and images is not limited to sports.
A Tahoe ski resort in California — home to the 1960 Winter Olympics — changed its name from Squaw Valley to Palisades Tahoe. Towns in Iowa are following suit.
The U.S. Board on Geographic Names changed the name of Squaw Creek in Ames to Ioway Creek. The original name is considered to be a derogatory term used toward Native American women. In mid-November, the Ames City Council voted unanimously to change the name of the park associated with the creek to Ioway Creek Park.
Keith Abraham, Ames’ Director of Parks and Recreation, said he can’t recall any pushback on the change coming from the community. The City Council also made it a point to involve citizens in the renaming process.
“We have our organizational values, and one of them is ‘respect,’” Abraham said. “The negative connotations of the vulgarness of the word ‘squaw,’ there’s a heightened awareness of it and we want to be respectful of all people. With that, we need to look at these things, take them seriously and do what we feel is right.”
While Indianola’s school district still uses an Indigenous mascot, the Indianola City Council removed an image of a male Native American wearing a headdress from all city logos, including on police vehicles and uniforms.
The change happened over a year ago. Indianola police Capt. Brian Sher told the Register that the entire department was involved in the change, and officers “are very happy with” the new logo.
For Clausen de Montes, Mason City’s mascot change is a step in the right direction, but she believes there is still work to be done.
Schools may want to hold onto their mascots for the sake of tradition or, they believe, honoring Native Americans. But Clausen de Montes believes that those schools are reinforcing the idea that Native Americans are “a thing of the past,” and that people don’t realize that they’re walking past Indigenous people every day.
“Native American groups and tribes have already said, ‘This does not benefit us in any way,’” Clausen de Montes said. “If you want to honor Native Americans, then help them maintain their land rights or their fishing rights or their water rights. It’s not much of a tribute if there’s no relationship.”
Alyssa Hertel is a college sports recruiting reporter for the Des Moines Register. Contact Alyssa at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @AlyssaHertel.