On Being Brave: Mascot or Mockery? 

"I love Boise High, but I believe in recognizing our faults. I think the mascot's outdated."

click to enlarge harrison_berry.jpg

Harrison Berry

Ezra Hampikian and Grace Relf both donned the feathered headdress and brown, tasseled chaps to complete the costume of the Boise High School mascot, the Boise Brave, during sports events.

"We were loud and proud and vocal to embody that offensive imagery," said Relf. "We can bring that same visibility to the issues that are actually affecting [indigenous] communities."

Years later, they've joined a growing chorus of students and graduates who have come to see the high school's Native American-inspired figurehead as distasteful, offensive and dangerous. Recently, amid a nationwide wave of fights over mascots, the Boise School District has taken action, officially changing its logo from an Indian head to a stylized letter B with a feather and removing removing some Native American imagery from public view, but critics say still more work needs to be done.

"[Boise High] is silently putting away this issue," said Hampikian. "Some things have been slowly removed. ... Perhaps it shouldn't be about silently making an issue go away and erasing our history with racism; and rather, recognizing that what we did was unfair."

click to enlarge An exhibit of a headdress and Boise High spirit stick caught the attention of a group of young activists. - TESS BAXTER
  • Tess Baxter
  • An exhibit of a headdress and Boise High spirit stick caught the attention of a group of young activists.

Nationally, there has been a push to end mascots that cater to racial stereotypes. Organizations like the Cleveland Indians and Atlanta Braves baseball teams, and especially the Washington Redskins football team, have been petitioned by dozens of tribes and groups, and thousands of people, to change their names. Some people have balked at changing mascots. In Driggs earlier this month, 11 Teton High School students walked out of class to show their support for the school's mascot, the Redskins, and according to a student body survey, 68% of students said the local school board shouldn't take up the issue of changing the name.

"The way I see it, I think it would only be racist if we were calling people Redskins," freshman Chase Tonks, who joined the walkout, told Teton Valley News. "But we're saying we are proud to be Redskins so it shouldn't be considered racist."

At Boise High, administrators have begun shifting the school's brand. The changes started seven years ago when they swapped the logo. Four years ago, they stopped using costumed mascots at events. That's not the same as rebranding the school or changing the mascot, said Boise School District spokesman Dan Hollar, who added that though the district has no current plans to completely pivot away from the Braves mascot, it has been in contact with several people in the community, including Idaho Sen. Cherie Buckner-Webb (D-Boise), regarding possible changes.

"There's no doubt that we've been moving toward an area of more respect," Hollar said. "Our ultimate goal is to get everyone to the table and have a larger conversation."

Though explicit Native symbolism won't be part of Boise High's branding going forward, much of it is still visible on campus, including a monolith in the quad, a mosaic on the side of the science building and in dozens of other places around the school. An activist group of three Boise High students feels the school could take a number of smaller steps toward openness about its use of the mascot—including naming indigenous people and their lands at school events, returning authentic Native American artifacts to tribes, implementing inclusivity training, replacing the school's "spirit stick" and making changes to how Native American materials can be found at its library—which they outlined in a letter delivered to Principal Robb Thompson.

click to enlarge HARRISON BERRY
  • Harrison Berry

The group is spearheaded by the Idaho Coalition Against Sexual & Domestic Violence, which provided the students with training and activism resources, and inspired them to imagine a better world and set about making it reality. That included working with activists like Tai Simpson of the Nez Perce Tribe, who told the students stories about her own work and encouraged them to speak out against injustice, applauding their diplomacy in communicating with school officials. She said when it comes to school mascots, people who take pride in race-based caricatures don't realize that others may not share their positive associations with it, and it heartened her to see the students taking input.

"What matters most to me in a mentor capacity is that the activists can celebrate the things I'm asking them to celebrate," she said, adding, "It's a conversation where the students have chosen to listen instead of speaking over indigenous people."

Signing the letter to Thompson were three students, one of whom was Tess Baxter, who graduated on May 21. Baxter said she wrote her senior paper on the mascot, documenting its ubiquity around the school and learning about why some there still support it. At Boise High, Baxter said, the image of the Brave is "plastered everywhere" on yearbooks, library windows and on the floor in the science building, and in her own research, many students said they felt strong associations between the mascot and their sense of school spirit.

"[Students] are really attached to this because they love their school. I'd say the hardest thing to do is address school pride. I love Boise High, but I believe in recognizing our faults. I think the mascot's outdated: It doesn't need to be a symbol of Boise High pride," she said.

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