For Rochester School District — home of the Warriors — 2021 isn’t the first time a bill in the state Legislature has pressured administrators to rebrand.
Currently, a bill prohibiting the use of Native American mascots or logos without tribal support is poised to reach the governor’s desk and become law, forcing Rochester, Toledo and dozens of other schools to reevaluate long-standing imagery. In 2016, a similar bill considered by lawmakers prompted significant changes in Rochester.
Back then, the name for K-2 students — the “Little Chiefs” — was scrapped, as was the middle school’s “Braves” mascot. Instead, Rochester High School’s “Warriors” moniker was expanded to include the whole district. The spear and feather logo was phased out of uniforms and other items, and administrators took down a caricature from inside the high school gym — a figure holding a tomahawk that Superintendent Kim Fry said some students found “very offensive.”
Approximately 6.5% of Rochester’s students are Native American.
To the south, Toledo has undergone similar rebranding — like retiring the bright red “Chief Wahoo” caricature — sparking outrage from some community members. The question of whether Rochester has faced similar backlash is an easy one.
“Oh, absolutely. Without a doubt. Yes,” Fry told The Chronicle.
Rochester’s decommissioning of the gym’s caricature was especially upsetting to some graduates, Fry said, for whom “it was a sign of pride and good memories of their years in high school.”
“Others understood that times have changed and that really it did represent a stereotype that is no longer acceptable,” she added.
But despite the images and mascots left behind by the district — much to the ire of some community members — several images remain throughout the schools that would likely need to be addressed with the Chehalis Tribe if House Bill 1356 is passed.
That includes the spear and feather logo still plastered on carpeting and on signs throughout the high school. The logo is painted on the road as well, with spears directing traffic into the parking lot. Folding chairs stored in the gym are still emblazoned with logos of headdresses — a cultural item not associated with local tribes. In the gym, the school still hosts a massive totem pole, featuring not Native art, but cartoonish athletes carved into the wood.
The pole has been with the district since the 1970s. Fry remembers seeing it when she herself was a student. The Toledo School District has since retired its own totem pole, with Superintendent Chris Rust recently deeming it “cultural appropriation to the nth degree” considering totem poles aren’t part of local tribes’ culture.
In anticipation of House Bill 1356 passing the Legislature, Rochester’s school board is working to set up more formal conversations with the Chehalis Tribe.
Those conversations are the very goal of the bill, according to its prime sponsor and the state’s only Native American lawmaker, Rep. Debra Lekanoff.
“This bill is about creating relationships, creating communities and building the respect for the next generation to look toward Native American communities in Washington state and say ‘we’re going to do great things together,’” Lekanoff told lawmakers earlier this month. “‘We’re going to survive, we’re going to build relationships and we’re going to educate the next generation.’”
Lekanoff referenced the Spokane Indians as a success story and example of using Native culture in a way that honors rather than mocks. In 2006, the minor league team collaborated with the tribe to create logos incorporating the Salish language. Flash forward some years, and the team’s uniforms now sport the word Spokane in Salish as well.
It’s the type of visibility and collaboration supporters of the bill would like to see statewide.
“Regardless of whether it passes or not,” Fry said, “we think it’s a good idea to sit down and have a conversation.”
Although Fry acknowledges that many images will likely have to be put to rest across the district, she hopes to keep the name Warriors as a more general mascot rather than one clearly referencing Native Americans.
In the 2016-17 school year, then-student Alexis Black graced the high school with a hand-painted mural featuring three warriors. While the figures are still hoisting spears, their metal helmets — and the long-tongued dragon they’re fighting — serve to distance the mascot from a Native American stereotype.
The original mascots, logos and caricatures, Fry said, weren’t “ever done to hurt or damage people in any way.”
“But now that we’re learning that it does cause damage, we have to do something about it,” she said. “We know better now, so we need to do better.”