MARYSVILLE — School district leaders might soon need to drop Marysville Pilchuck High School’s nickname, the Tomahawks, if the Tulalip Tribes decide it is an “inappropriate use” of tribal heritage.
A bill moving through the Legislature would prohibit public schools from using Native American names, symbols or images unless local tribes approve. Those mascots would be phased out after Jan. 1, 2022.
The bill passed 92-5 in a House vote last week and is now headed to the Senate for deliberation. Its purpose is to reclaim the regalia and other cultural items important to Native heritage that have been appropriated as mascots and team names.
For Marysville Pilchuck, this isn’t the first time the Tomahawks nickname has been up for debate. In the past, fans at Marysville Pilchuck sporting events have donned face paint and headdresses while performing a gesture known as the “Tomahawk Chop.”
Such displays of school pride have since been banned.
State Rep. Emily Wicks, D-Everett, a Marysville Pilchuck graduate who was a cheerleader, said she remembers the Tomahawk Chop being performed at events before it was banned in 2004.
“That was a hard learning period for all of us,” Wicks said, “but it was important for us to move forward and to begin to think about our actions, the words we used, the names, our mascots, and really do something that honors and respects our sovereign tribes and the indigenous communities on the land that we occupy.”
Wicks supports House Bill 1356 because she believes it is an important move toward a more inclusive learning environment.
Marysville Pilchuck is Snohomish County’s only high school that uses both a Native American symbol and nickname.
Totem Middle School, also part of the Marysville School District, has a Thunderbird mascot. The campus is home to a totem pole created by Kelly Moses, a Tulalip carver who attended the school in the 1970s. The pole was installed in 2006 when the school changed its name from Marysville Junior High School to Totem.
At Marysville Pilchuck, tomahawk and arrowhead symbols can be found on school signs, football helmets and more.
The bill affords an exception to schools such as Marysville Pilchuck, where enrollment boundaries include tribal reservation or trust lands, if the schools in question consult with local tribes to get permission to use Native American imagery. So the future of the Tomahawks mascot would be in the hands of the Tulalip Tribes if the legislation is signed into law.
Asked if the local tribes would prefer to have the mascot changed, Tulalip Tribes Chairwoman Teri Gobin declined to comment.
However, Gobin did express the tribes’ support for the bill in a written statement to The Daily Herald.
“HB 1356 creates meaningful dialogue between tribes and districts and gives tribes the authority to decide whether the use of a Native themed mascot, or tribal imagery, is positive or negative for that tribe,” reads the statement. “Studies have shown that representation matters. When our people are misrepresented, it shapes the way we see ourselves and the way our non-native neighbors see us. Tribal nations aren’t stereotypes, we are living, breathing cultures. Tulalip is proud to support this bill and we support all legislation that creates meaningful consultation on issues that impact us.”
Jodi Runyon, a Marysville School District spokesperson, said the district will continue to have conversations with the Tulalip Tribes regarding HB 1356 and any other issues that affect Native American children and families.
At least one other local school has grappled with whether a Native American mascot is appropriate in recent years.
In 1997, Meadowdale High School in Lynnwood dropped the “Chiefs” nickname that represented the student body for 34 years. After months of debate, the school rebranded as the Mavericks in 1998.
That change came after the Washington State Board of Education adopted a 1993 resolution calling on school districts to discontinue the use of certain mascots that could be considered insensitive to Native Americans.
The state board reaffirmed its stance in a 2012 resolution, citing an American Psychological Association position linking the use of Native American mascots to negative student mental health and self-esteem.
In 2012, Marysville Pilchuck and the Tulalip Tribes discussed doing away with the Tomahawks name in response to that resolution, but decided against making the change.
If HB 1356 passes, it will be the first time the state has adopted a legal position on the issue of Native American mascots in public schools.
The bill’s main sponsor is Rep. Debra Lekanoff, D-Bow, who has been joined by co-sponsors including Reps. April Berg, D-Mill Creek; John Lovick, D-Mill Creek; and Lauren Davis, D-Shoreline.
“Often, the use of Native American names, symbols, or images is premised on the promotion of unity or school spirit,” Lekanoff wrote in a memo about the bill. “However, this use fails to respect the cultural heritage of Native Americans and is contrary to the goal of making schools safe and respectful learning environments.”
Lekanoff, who is the House’s only current Native American lawmaker, is an Alaskan Native of Tlingit and Aleut heritage.
Ellen Dennis: 425-339-3486; firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @reporterellen.