A petition to change a high school mascot has led to fierce resistance in a largely white Utah town, where many are defending the Bountiful Braves as a way to honor American Indians and are supported by the mayor, who has told one woman to be “less easily offended.”

The confrontation started this week after Mayor Randy Lewis, who was first elected in 2013, responded to an email from a resident and alumna who said she’s troubled that students there continue to wear fake headdresses and paint their faces red for school events. Lewis questioned her authority to raise the issue.

“Are you an Indigenous person?” he asked. “Are you their official spokesman? If you are not an official representative critic of the ‘Braves’ … do you have evidence that the Indigenous people are offended by Bountiful High?”

A screenshot of that message has been shared widely on social media by the alumna, Mallory Rogers. And Lewis has since apologized to Rogers and the public for “some offending comments,” including calling Rogers a “sheep” for the Black Lives Matter movement. He promised to “listen more carefully” in the future.

But his original response had already created division in the town of Bountiful, which sits just north of Salt Lake City and now is locked in the same debate that’s playing out nationwide. As thousands have rallied against racism over the past two months, other cities have begun to reform their police departments, remove statues and start conversations about the names of some professional sports teams, such as the Washington Redskins.

Bountiful High administrators say they will start reviewing whether to keep the Braves and want to hear opinions about it from residents, in what will be a complicated conversation.

A group of alumni have joined the call to retire the mascot, saying it’s offensive and demeaning and encourages students to appropriate stereotypes of American Indian culture. Several tribal organizations and leaders in the state, including the Utah League of Native American Voters, have supported that effort.

LeMichelle Lane said her daughter is the only American Indian among the 1,500 students who currently attend Bountiful High, and she feels it’s derogatory. “They have a white student come on stage with a headdress on and jump around,” Lane said. “And my daughter has to sit there and watch. They don’t know that’s a sacred thing, and that’s why we take offense.”

A former white student who used to dress up as the mascot in 2004 said he also now regrets it and is embarrassed, looking back.

The original petition to get rid of the Braves moniker has more than 1,900 signatures. But a counter-petition from those who oppose any changes has surpassed it, with nearly 2,900 signatures, and it’s quickly gaining more support.

Thomas Regis and Alexis Sterling, who are both Native American alums of Bountiful High, said they like the mascot and believe it celebrates their culture by depicting their ancestors as courageous warriors. They’re proud that white people want to honor them by looking like them. They don’t see it as disrespectful.

“Please stop being offended by it for us,” Sterling added. “We’re not offended.”

Many white residents have jumped in with them, calling the effort to remove the mascot “leftist political BS” and a “wasteful spending of time and money” on Facebook. The mayor said he’s had six children graduate from the school and “none of them are embarrassed” about it. One alumnus added, “I refuse to let someone take away the Braves name.”

‘Brave Indian warriors'

Those who defend the mascot say that because it doesn’t refer to a specific tribe, it shouldn’t be a problem. Instead, they say, Braves refers to the idea of a strong American Indian.

It’s a kind and inspiring depiction, believes Regis, an enrolled member of The Three Affiliated Tribes in North Dakota. He graduated from Bountiful High in 2014, where he was a student body officer and a member of the choir, and liked seeing the mascot in the hallways with murals and statues and stained glass windows.

“I fail to see how the school’s use of brave Indian warriors as a symbol is racist,” he said. “They were skilled in battle, lived with integrity and honorably sought justice for the suffering of their people.”

Getting rid of the mascot, he added, would feel to him like pushing his culture aside. Sterling, who graduated in the same class and identifies as Ojibwe, agrees. She said she doesn’t want her community to disappear even more.

Already, she said, people don’t see or ignore the concerns on reservations and in Native groups across the country. Indigenous women are murdered at higher rates. There’s high unemployment and few resources, Sterling added.

She would rather see the mascot stay and the school have more conversations about Native heritage.

“The people who are advocating to cancel the Braves are also, perhaps unintentionally, advocating to cancel Native American culture at BHS,” she said. “If the people who signed the petition really believe that we have a rich culture and history, then how do they plan on celebrating it? Instead of canceling the Braves, they should advocate to inform students.”

Sterling said she believes the original petition was well-meaning. But she takes issue with it being started by two white alums, who she believes are “just trying to be woke and politically correct.”

In this Friday Jan. 11, 2019 photo, a water tank sits above Cedar City, Utah, with the Redmen mascot of Cedar High School displayed on it. The painted image of a Native American and the name "Redmen" will remain as a city marker in the southern Utah town despite a decision to change the high-school mascot that inspired it. (Trent Nelson/The Salt Lake Tribune via AP)

It would be different if the school’s mascot was the Redskins, she added, which is an overtly racial description of skin color. And she supported Cedar High School in southern Utah changing its mascot last year from the Redmen after a similar debate.

‘Who does this honor?'

The same things they find pride in, though, other American Indian alumni who are opposed to the name feel are harmful.

Unlike with the related controversy over the University of Utah’s Utes mascot, the Braves seem to be just a vague caricature for any Indigenous groups — despite each tribe’s uniqueness and separate culture, said Cynthia Sharma, a Navajo woman who graduated from Bountiful High in 2011.

To her, that makes it more similar to the Redskins controversy.

At Bountiful High, students paint themselves red and put on war paint. They wear feathers in their hair, too. They whoop and holler. And they do the “tomahawk chop” at events, though most Western tribes, such as those in the modern boundaries of Utah, never used tomahawks.

At football games, some students also call the other team’s entrance “The Trail of Tears.” That refers to the relocation of thousands of American Indians in the 1800s who were forced from their homes in the East and made to move mostly to Oklahoma. At least 3,000 died.

“Whose voice are we really using?” asked Sharma. “Who does this honor?”

She said it’s painful to flip through her yearbook and her mother’s, who also went to the school, from the 1980s. She hates seeing the white students dressed up in full Native American costumes that don’t match any culture. To her, that feels more like being erased than losing a mascot.

No one, she said, understands the history. They just pick what they like and use that.

For a school that’s 84% white and a town that’s 94% white, according to state and U.S. census data, she believes it’s dangerous. “We’re just brave and strong savages to them,” she said. “It’s objectifying.”

With the issue in the spotlight, Davis School District said Bountiful High will no longer have a student dress up as its mascot for assemblies or sporting events, which it says it’s already been moving away from. And the school’s Facebook page changed its picture Tuesday from a photo of a kid in the costume to the letter “B” with a feather on the side.

(Photo courtesy of Bountiful High School's Facebook page) Pictured is the student mascot dressed as an American Indian at Bountiful High School.

“That’s not going to continue,” said district spokesman Chris Williams.

The Shoshone tribe lived in this part of what is now Utah before white settlers from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints arrived. The town’s name — Bountiful — comes from the faith’s Book of Mormon.

The Bountiful website currently captures that history by saying the town was founded in 1847 by whites afraid of “hostile Indians.” It says: “The townsite had been laid out by Jesse W. Fox and the people wished to have it enclosed as a precaution against hostile Indians. They voted in 1855 to build a wall entirely around it.”

It doesn’t portray the American Indians as brave there; it paints them as the enemy, Sharma and others commented. And even without the student mascot, Sharma believes fans will keep dressing up.

Lane, whose daughter is the only current American Indian student at the school — which is shown in data from the Utah Board of Education — said her family has been afraid to speak out about the mascot in the town. She doesn’t want her daughter, who has a different last name, to be bullied.

Her younger son has already been picked on at his elementary school, she said, for having long hair, which is a tradition in his culture.

Alisha Archibald, who graduated from the school in 2012, said attitudes toward the mascot affected all races. She is Indian, having been born in Fiji, and she said students at Bountiful would often ask her what “type of Indian” she was.

“The dot or the feather?” she recalls them asking. Sharma said she, too, was asked the same thing.

A reconciliation

Some white opponents of the mascot say their stand is a reckoning with their own participation in cultural appropriation.

Rogers, who graduated in 2013, started the petition to retire the Braves along with a friend. She had recently seen a post on Instagram calling out mascots and it made her think of her high school experience.

“I wore war paint to sporting events,” she said. “I would wear headbands and long braids with feathers in my hair. I was trying to look like a Native American. And no one was questioning it.”

Now, she added, “I am so ashamed.”

Her hope was to start a conversation about the aspects of the mascot and school celebrations she finds troubling. That includes calling parties “powwows,” having students chant “one tribe” and featuring a giant arrow on the front of the building. She said she never expected the response she would get from the mayor or the extreme pushback she has faced for being a white voice behind a Native issue, including receiving some threats.

But Lane and Sharma have thanked her for being an ally. “Some question why we haven’t brought this up sooner, but we’re scared,” Lane said. “... Look what’s happened with Mallory.”

The Utah League of Native American Voters has similarly said it appreciates “recent efforts by some in the white community to educate other whites about the misuse of Native mascots and imagery in Utah schools.”

And it’s prompted several others to share their stories, too.

Jon England, who graduated from Bountiful High in 2004, said he is white and was very blond and thought it would be ironic for him to be the mascot — so he signed up. For a few games, he donned the school’s costume: A leather shirt, pants with tassels and a full headdress.

“There wasn’t much thought of how I was being insensitive,” he said. “There was definitely a lack of cultural awareness.”

Now 34, England said he regrets putting on the outfit. He still lives in Bountiful and has four kids. By the time they go to the high school, he hopes the mascot is changed and all students stop wearing redface.

What’s next

Darren Parry, the chairman of the Northwest Band of the Shoshone Nation, said he would like to see communities dealing with mascot issues try to listen to both sides, particularly as the nation is grappling with these symbols. “Groups should get together and see what they can come up with, keeping in mind Native voices,” he said.

But redface, he said, should definitely be stopped.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Bountiful High School, home of the Braves, Monday, July 6, 2020.
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Those in favor of holding onto the mascot say it’s part of their history; the Braves have been the image of the school since it opened in 1951.

The Utah League of Native American Voters has countered, “Traditions can change and this one should.”

The league is backed by the American Indian specialist at the Utah Board of Education, who says that Native mascots can be harmful to students of color. The problem, according to Harold Foster, is that such mascots make race into a stereotype for others to act out. A culture becomes a character.

What both sides seem to agree on, though, is that there could be more education within the school on American Indians.

Davis School District said that will be part of any proposal moving forward, whether the mascot stays or goes. But Williams, the spokesman, stressed that “none of this will happen overnight.”

There’s no set process to change a mascot. The district’s board of education will typically name a new school and pick the symbols for that with public feedback. But they haven’t ever replaced or renamed one before — and they had no idea, Williams said, how strong the resistance there would be.