'The R-Word': Debate Over Native American School Mascots Gets Heated at Idaho Statehouse 

The Boise High Braves mascot has been a source of tension in the debate over how images of Native people are used. - HARRISON BERRY
  • Harrison Berry
  • The Boise High Braves mascot has been a source of tension in the debate over how images of Native people are used.
It wasn't a public hearing; there wasn't a chairman of a committee in the Lincoln Auditorium at the Idaho State Capitol on June 27 when a presentation in favor of high schools keeping their Native symbols and mascots was derailed by a small contingent of Boiseans.

"I wonder if there isn't something we can do to reduce the audience by one," said presenter, former Native American Guardians leadership team member and author Andre Billeaudeaux, referring to Tai Simpson, a Boise activist of the Nez Perce Tribe, whose questions and criticism of Billeaudeaux had ground his talk, "How the Redskins got their Name," to a halt.

At the event, Billeaudeaux sought to ground the use of Native American mascots and symbols at schools in American history, starting with Native use of red paint to cover their bodies on the Eastern seaboard, and extending through the early 20th century, when schools began adopting mascots.

"I suggest that in 1929 [when the Idaho community of Driggs adopted 'the Redskins' as its school mascot] ... there was a sense of excitement and honor," he said, adding that the use of a human symbol may have been a source of extra pride at a time when the community grappled with the effects of the Great Depression, and contributed to positive social factors that reduce dropout rates and improve student morale in small towns.

Hosted by Rep. Chad Christensen, whose legislative district includes Driggs, the event drew just a handful of attendees, and those who came were primarily in opposition to Billeaudeaux's assertion that Native symbols were beneficial, and not harmful.

"'Redskins' is a racial slur. Full stop," said Simpson. "For something to be considered racist, it doesn't need social science behind it."

In Boise, there have been a number of flashpoints in the school mascot controversy. Earlier this year, a group of Boise High School students, alumni and activists asked the principal to retire some Native-inspired symbols around the school to reduce the impact of its use of the "Brave" mascot; and, in an adjacent move, the Boise City Council has renamed two parks in honor of their Native heritage so far in 2019.

The "R-word," however, is a particular source of tension, especially as a mascot and symbol. It's the name of the football team from Washington, D.C., and has been routinely challenged across the country. For attendee Ezra Hampikian, who dressed as the Boise Brave when she was a student at Boise High School, the source of frustration was who indigenous people are today, and who should be allowed to speak on their behalf.

"Indigenous people are living right now, and they should be in charge of their narrative," Hampikian said to Billeaudeaux. "I don't know why you're giving this presentation right now—it should be Tai [Simpson]."

Editor's Note: At the Statehouse forum, Billeaudeaux presented himself as a member of NAGA, though his relationship with that organization had previously ended. In an email, Mark OneWolf of NAGA's leadership team wrote:

Boise Weekly regrets the error.

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