By Charlie Bermant Peninsula Daily News
PORT TOWNSEND — Despite strong opposition from some community members, the Port Townsend School Board has voted unanimously to drop “Redskins” as the high school’s team name, logo and mascot after nearly 90 years.
School Superintendent David Engle said after the Monday night vote that the local community will be part of the process to choose a new name and mascot.
The school board will then retire Redskins with dignity over the next year.
“No one believes the Redskins name and symbol are intentionally hurtful or disrespectful toward Native Americans,” said school board member Ann Burkhart, who made the motion.
“But I fail to see how a symbol, even a revered symbol, that is generally acknowledged to be divisive can be helpful in preparing students for success in the increasingly connected and collaborative 21st century.”
The decision follows a year-long process where an eight-member study group gathered information about the impact of “Redskins” and recommended to the school board that the name “should be retired with honor and dignity… We need to accept that the culture has gone beyond us and that it is time to change.”
About 275 people attended the meeting in the high school auditorium, many routinely cheering speakers who opposed the name change and booing those who took an opposing view.
About 45 persons signed up to speak at the public comment portion of the meeting, with at least 30 arguing that the school board should keep Redskins. The name has been used by the high school since 1926.
Dan Lockhart, a 1973 graduate, never thought there was a problem with the high school’s use of Redskins, despite some who felt it was racially insensitive.
“It was never an issue,” he said. “It didn’t become an issue until about 20 years ago.”
Terri McQuillen, a Native American and also a Port Townsend High School graduate, said she never took offense.
“I didn’t, because I was raised to understand my responsibility is to take my name and make it proud,” she said.
Burkhart’s motion as unanimously approved by the six-member school board:
“Recognizing that the ‘Redskins’ name and logo has a long, cherished history with Port Townsend High School and its alumni, the school board also recognizes that it is a divisive issue for the school, community and region.
“I move that, in the next 12 months, the school board retire this name with honor and dignity, and a student- and community-based process to replace it be conducted.”
After the vote was taken, some members of the crowd were heard saying that all of the school board members would be voted out, and that future board meetings will be disrupted with Redskins’ cheers.
Controversy about the Redskins name has emerged periodically for several decades, with arguments on both sides — that it be replaced with something that is not racially charged or retained as a symbol of respect for Native Americans, a positive symbol with a long history at the school.
Among those opposing the name in the past has been Jamestown S’Klallam Tribal Chairman Ron Allen of Blyn. Port Townsend was part of Klallam tribe’s traditional territory
Those arguing in favor of keeping the name included one who spoke out Monday night at the board meeting — Terri McQuillen, daughter of late Makah tribal elder Mary McQuillen, who died in 2007 after spending much of her life in Port Townsend.
At Neah Bay, more than 120 miles west of Port Townsend and the town center of the Makah tribal reservation, the high school team is the “Red Devils.”
Engle, who has been school superintendent for only a year, stayed neutral in the discussion to change the name, ceding the decision to the school board and the community,
At a June 10 meeting, the committee charged with studying the issue over the past year suggested it could take two or three years to change the name since it would require resurfacing the gymnasium and removing the Redskins logo throughout the school.
The cost of doing this has not been determined, according to the committee.
Student leaders have said the student body should not be responsible for the expense.
Letter from a father
The latest round of debate over Redskins began with a June 5, 2012, letter from Port Townsend resident Andrew Sheldon to the school board saying he was “offended, embarrassed and ashamed by our school mascot” and who asked that it be changed.
Sheldon reiterated this at a July 23 meeting last year that was attended by about 40 people, where the pros and cons of making a change were argued.
At that meeting, John Stroeder, a 1976 Port Townsend High School graduate who played for the Milwaukee Bucks before returning home, spoke out against changing the name.
“If you change the name, I’m done here,” said Stroeder, a former coach.
“I will take my jersey out of the [trophy] cabinet [at the high school]” where it is on display, he said. “I’m very passionate about this, and I’m not passionate about a lot of things.”
Stroeder told the board that if the name is changed, “you will probably lose a lot of money and support from people around town.”
“This is political. People who have played as Redskins have a lot of pride in the name, and there is no reason to change it now just because one guy [Sheldon] says so.”
Sheldon said of Stroeder: “He was a professional athlete and should be setting a better example for the kids. This is all about the kids and their education, which can’t happen while there is a racist symbol representing the team.”
Many people supported Sheldon’s effort to change the name and felt that “Redskins” was demeaning, while many alumni said they felt pride while playing under that name and said they didn’t like “outsiders” telling them what to do.
Sheldon said that if the name was not changed, he would withdraw his two daughters, 14 and 9, from the Port Townsend School District, then sue the district for discrimination “because having that name makes it impossible for them to get a good education,”
Sheldon said the name put his older daughter in an impossible situation.
He said she was unwilling to participate in cheers for the Redskins and as a result faced ridicule from her classmates; also, he said, she felt threatened by opposing teams who may take offense by the name while playing away games.
If the team were called a term that was derogatory for black or Jewish people, then “people would recognize that it’s racist,” Sheldon said. “This is the same thing.”
Port Townsend has not been the only place recently reconsidering the Redskins name.
The superintendent of the Teton County School District in Driggs, Idaho, decided to drop the school’s Redskins name but has postponed action while a plan to change the signs and logos is implemented.
According to a June 14 Associated Press story, Superintendent Monte Woolstenhulme made the decision to change the name because he wanted to show respect for Native Americans, teach students to look beyond skin color and respond to efforts nationwide to change names with tribal references.
But the decision has generated public outcry and criticism in and beyond the resort town of Driggs, prompting Woolstenhulme to schedule a public forum next month and consult with local tribal leaders, according to the story.
On the national level, Washington Redskins owner Daniel Snyder has said he will “never change” the pro football team’s name in spite of a letter from 10 members of Congress calling for a new name.