Is a ‘Redmen’ mascot racist or does it honor Native Americans? The debate is dividing a southern Utah town.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Cedar High School is considering a change in the name of its mascot, The Redmen, Friday Jan. 11, 2019. Mohey Tawa, the Cedar High drill team, performs at halftime of a basketball game vs. Canyon View.

Cason Deschine started his freshman year at Cedar High School with a long family tradition of school spirit.

His mother and uncles all played sports there. His older brother Braden was on the football team and once appeared at a basketball game in buckskin and a war bonnet — not his own Paiute regalia, but the costume of the school’s controversial mascot: The Redmen.

“That rubbed off on me, watching my older brother and his buddies going to basketball games and showing their pride, and how this name unites all these students,” said Deschine, now himself a senior football player. “I love to be a Redman. I can tell the student body at Cedar High is very proud of the name. They’re not showing disrespect.”

Thalia Guerrero is dubious. She also is a member of the Paiute Indian Tribe of Utah and a senior at Cedar High, in Cedar City, where debates over the mascot have heated up over a series of hearings this winter. Even Guerrero’s teachers don’t seem to understand her objections, she said — not just to the name, which is regarded nationally as a racist slur, but also to the tomahawk chops, the face paint, the war whoops at school events.

“I feel like a myth, like I’m not a real person. Every single teacher I talked with says the same thing: ‘Haven’t you ever played cowboys and Indians when you were a little kid? It’d be the same thing if we were the cowboys, wouldn’t it?’” Guerrero said. “Uh, no. It wouldn’t.”

After years of allegations of stereotyping, cultural appropriation and racist language, the Iron County school may drop the mascot. A committee is holding its final public hearing on Monday and plans to make a recommendation to the school board later this month. [Update: The committee has voted 17-7 to recommend that the mascot be abandoned.]

But for some Native Americans in and around Cedar City, the decision may not immediately heal all the wounds that have been opened. Multiple teenagers tearfully described how the dispute has laid bare the threats they feel to their identities and heritage. Teens and adults alike said the issue has revived sometimes painful experiences with trying to fit in: Oppose the mascot, and you’re seen as an outsider in the school and community, but support it and your Native authenticity is questioned.

And there is frustration and worry from both sides that Cedar City’s entire Native American population will be seen as having the same opinion in a town where some Native students say they feel honored by the Redmen name, while others say they have been driven away from the school altogether by casual racism.

“One comment I just couldn’t step over was, ‘All the Indians I know are fine with it,’” said Cheri Yazzie, a Navajo woman who graduated from Cedar High School in 1997. As a writer for the student newspaper, Yazzie wrote pieces objecting to the team name and said she faced intense backlash for it — not just from her classmates, but also from adults in town.

“It starts very young, this idea that Native Americans aren’t really people, that we’re some caricature,” Yazzie said. “Not all Native Americans are OK with it. I am not.”

‘You’re not Native enough’

But some Native American supporters of the team name also feel silenced, said Merrilee Ham, Deschine’s mother. Ham and her family have been proud CHS athletes for decades, playing under the Redmen name.

None of them has expressed feeling excluded or that the team name has made athletics less meaningful, she said.

“I’m raising my children to know exactly what a mascot is, what is the purpose of it. … That’s why my kids aren’t offended,” Ham said. “We also talked about why it could be considered offensive to people.”

Now, she said, she’s begun to “tiptoe around” the issue. Posting photos of her kids in their football uniforms has taken on new significance as opposition to the team name has become more vocal.

And, Ham said, it sometimes comes with an added implied barb: “‘You’re not Native enough because you don’t stand by us.’”

For her son, who began studying important Paiute ceremonial traditions after two of the people who knew them best died last year, that is heartbreaking.

“People would rather focus on a nonthreatening name instead of focusing on our real threats that are wasting away our people and our culture,” Deschine said, his voice breaking. “I’m trying to hold on with my fingertips, hold on to whatever is left of my Paiute culture. It’s slowly going away.”

Ham said she worries that the tribal representatives helping the district review the mascot have already decided to call for a change, and that the non-Native community will see the tribe’s official stance as having “more meaning and more power” than her opinion.

“None of our chairpeople talked to us about it, or asked what the membership wanted, how we felt about it,” Ham said. “Nobody asked us.”

The Paiute Tribal Council has issued a statement in support of the process the Iron County School District initiated this fall: A committee of 28 students, staff, alumni, community members and tribal representatives was appointed to review the name, a series of public hearings will conclude Monday, and the committee will make a recommendation to the school board later in January.

But the tribal council hasn’t taken a position on the mascot itself, said council Chairwoman Tamra Borchardt-Slayton, though the resolution frames the potential change in positive language. As a member of the school district’s committee, Borchardt-Slayton said, she still is listening to input.

More than 200 people have attended public hearings in the past month and another 180 have sent emails, Rich Nielsen, the school district’s director of secondary education, said in a December meeting, recorded by Color Country Politics.

Native American and non-Native people alike have weighed in on both sides, Nielsen confirmed — and despite supporters’ claims that those objecting to the nickname are “outsiders,” the committee has received a number of complaints from locals.

“Redmen is recognized nationally as an outdated, disparaging and offensive term,” Nielsen said. “That’s the national perspective.”

‘Which Indian are you honoring?’

Unlike related controversies over the University of Utah Utes mascot, Redmen is not the name of a tribe or nation, but an explicitly racial description of skin color, Nielsen said.

For a school that is 84 percent white to claim to celebrate a racial feature that is a target for discrimination is hypocritical, said Jennilee Kanosh, who was chosen to represent the Paiute Tribe at powwows nationwide as the tribe’s 2016 queen.

“Parents have asked their kids not to be friends with me because of that, because of my skin,” she said tearfully at the Dec. 18 hearing, which she attended with a cousin, 14-year-old Leia Shallenberger.

“I have been bullied because of my color,” agreed Shallenberger, who attends another Cedar City high school, in part because of the CHS team name. “They call me ‘Custer Killer,’ and awful things.”

Several white speakers at the same meeting argued the name has been intended to honor Native Americans since the school chose it in the 1940s.

“Who names their high school after somebody or something they want to mock?” 1983 alumnus David Benson said to cheers from the crowd.

“Brigham Young taught that redmen are from an ancient and royal people,” agreed Alice Madison, referring to Mormon teachings that Native Americans are descended from a wealthy Jewish prophet who sailed to the Americas in 600 B.C. — though the narrative has no support in modern DNA evidence.

Carl Palmer, a 1959 graduate of CHS, said the mascot was a “wonderful [image] to give our Native Americans in this area.”

“I’ve never seen a Redman mascot that wasn’t shown as a noble, proud, fearless warrior with his head in the sky and the full headdress on,” Palmer said.

But when that is the image that the non-Native community reveres, it provides cover to ignore or marginalize living Indigenous people, said Marlee Kanosh, a Paiute member.

“Having an old, 1950s, one-eagle-feather-wearing Indian guy as a mascot is an insult. The question comes to mind: Which Indian are you honoring? The old Indian who was so strong, or does this include the modern Indians and all of our struggles? The racism, oppression, poverty? Our missing and murdered women? Our suicidal youth?” Marlee Kanosh asked at the most recent hearing. “Or does that not apply because all the ‘redmen’ they honor are dead and gone?”

For Guerrero, the warrior image behind the mascot shows nothing of the Paiute life she knows: learning to make bread, beading and hand games from her grandmother, hunting with relatives, throwing food in four directions “so we’re sharing with the Earth,” and attending ceremonies that celebrate humility and gratitude — not violence.

By contrast, the official Cedar High School song begins:

“When the Redmen, our team, is in the game / And the whole school is fighting to guard its name / And the Reds yell like warriors as the team goes by / There’s a killing in the ol’ town tonight.”

At school, Guerrero said, white teachers and classmates have said they admire the mascot “because ‘Indians are warriors and they’re strong and independent’” — as if the brutalities of the past two centuries didn’t occur.

“If you look at it, Natives were killed,” she said. “So many people, just killed off. Because [settlers] wanted to. Because they could.”

Feathers, braids and war paint

Several alumni claimed the school has a “harmonious” relationship with the modern Paiute tribe. A recent CHS graduate pointed to the school’s Mohey Tawa drill team, whose members had to research the team name (“Dancing Indian Princess,” according to a 2014 article in Iron County Today) to “gain respect.”

However, the drill team faced sharp criticism when footage of a 2016 routine appeared on social media, showing members in black braided wigs, headdresses and face paint — all of which Paiute tribal leaders said they specifically warned the team against. The Tribal Council said it “expressed deep concern” when the drill team approached it with the idea and urged the team to work with the tribe’s cultural director and asked to preview the routine.

"Unfortunately, the drill team did not follow up on any of the Tribal Council’s recommendations," read a news statement from the council.

The drill team is not the only corner of student life where activities have strayed into Native American representations that have been widely denounced as appropriative or exploitative of stereotypes.

A scroll through Instagram photos tagged at Cedar High School shows white students arrayed in mock war paint and feather headdresses. The predominantly white cheer squad can be seen during a 2017 summer camp in fringed tank mini dresses and headbands with feathers, hands to mouths in mid-whoop.

Images of the cheer squad in their mini dresses circulated last year on social media, and team members reported receiving threats, said Borchardt-Slayton — exactly the type of event that necessitates evaluating the mascot through a “21st-century lens,” said Nielsen.

“It’s an increasing challenge for us as students post things showing their Redman spirit, their Redmen pride, that then get backlash from people outside of our community,” Nielsen said. “What we’ve ended up with is a number of incidents [in which] students have been targeted and labeled as racist for wearing Redman gear or standing in front of the headdress.”

Still other students and staff report they refuse to wear CHS apparel outside Cedar City lest they incur harassment or give offense, Nielsen said.

“Why do we care what outsiders think?” retorted one alumnus in an email sent to the committee. “We cannot allow ourselves to be bullied and pushed around simply because a few outsiders are offended. I'm offended that they are offended.”

“This is our community,” agreed Benson, the alumnus whose defense of the mascot drew cheers at the December meeting. “Let’s keep it that way.”

‘There was no shot that I was going to have school pride’

Supporters of the mascot have often pointed to a sense of community and tradition they believe will be lost if the name is changed.

“I hear … about ‘looking at these issues through [21st]-century lenses’ and ‘politically correct’ and so on,” Palmer said. “I wonder how many of us are really, really concerned about tradition, and what tradition means?”

Shallenberger balked at the complaint of lost tradition.

“My ancestors … fought for their land, which was taken from them. Kids were kidnapped and taken to boarding schools, stripped of their language. I can’t speak my language, and I would if I could,” she said, weeping openly. “I dance in the powwows to show how proud I am. … I pray that everything will be OK in the end, because us Native Americans — we fought. We tried. In the end we were stripped of everything we had.”

Yazzie and Ham, from opposite sides of the mascot debate, and with very different memories of CHS — one as a criticized student journalist and the other an athlete — agreed that a person’s position on the team name depends a lot on their experience with exclusion.

“I do understand why Natives [who object to the mascot] have that feeling,” said Ham. “Something happened to them — something maybe traumatic happened to them. So that’s why I say, … ‘You guys are right for the way you feel and I’m right for the way I feel. I understand where you guys are coming from, I just don’t agree with you.’”

But Native students who oppose the mascot have to take on the rest of the community, Guerrero said.

“I’ve talked with a lot of people who have problems with it,” Guerrero said — but most won’t say so in front of others, she added. “It sucks because I want to be like, ‘Help me try to fix this. You’re letting people run over you because you’re more focused on your social life than your culture.’ ... I don’t think they fully let themselves think what they want to think because of their friends.”

The district should recognize that students who are hurt by the name may be caught in a spiral that makes them more and more invisible, Yazzie said.

“I never felt like I belonged there,” she said. “The fact that the team name was Redmen — there was no shot that I was going to have school pride on any level. I wasn’t going to have this experience that other people do because it went against my values. They have this chance to feel this sense of community around that, and I did not. I raised my voice as much as I could, and then I let it go. You have to be careful, or you end up fighting race wars your whole life.”

CHS students have been “targeted” by their own classmates, Nielsen said. The committee decided not to include any current Native American students for fear they’d be harassed for their positions, Borchardt-Slayton said.

‘Call yourselves what we call ourselves: The People’

Meanwhile, Yazzie said, the district itself risks continuing the cycle, from the very first lesson in which children learn Columbus “discovered” a place already filled with people.

“All of these children are educated all the way from elementary, learning subtle things that Natives aren’t people. Then you get these high schoolers who don’t really have a lot of empathy, don’t have a lot of understanding of what it is to be the subject of racism. They don’t have respect for Natives as a whole. And that causes a disengagement from Native [students], especially the ones that it bothers.”

The mascot debate could have new implications for what happens in those classrooms, Borchardt-Slayton said.

“If they are going to keep this name, I would want [them] to work with the Paiute Tribe of Utah to enter into an intergovernmental agreement where you WILL provide education services, you WILL provide an adequate Native American history course — and a Paiute history course because you are on Paiute land," she said. "We’d also like more diversity in the school district, a diversity or multicultural representative, or we’d like a seat at the table at the school board. It could be a nonvoting seat, but at least we’d have a seat.”

The schools also could step up their participation in tribal events, said Paiute member Patrick Charles.

“If you want to learn about the Paiute Indians, where are you the second weekend of June of every year?” Charles said, referring to the annual celebration of the tribe’s 1980 restoration as a federally recognized sovereign government.

“I’ve tried to get the high schools to have their bands come and play for us in the parade. Their answer is no,” he said. “… I contact other dance groups to come. Their answer was no. … If you want to honor the Paiute people, learn about them.”

As for the Cedar High mascot, the committee is not tasked with finding potential replacements — though it is receiving suggestions. Borchardt-Slayton said her favorite was offered by an alumnus at a hearing: The Reds, which already is used by girls’ teams at Cedar High and wouldn’t require the school’s “C-R” logos to be replaced.

Charles made an even more inclusive recommendation.

“Instead of being the Redmen, why don’t you call yourselves what we call ourselves: The People.”