Native American students, alumni emotional as Bountiful High plans to drop its Braves mascot

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Current naming is pictured around Bountiful High on Monday, Nov. 30, 2020 after the school announced it would to retire The Braves name.

Lemiley Lane, one of the few Native American students at Bountiful High, was so happy that she cried Monday when she found out she’d no longer be graduating as a “Brave.”

For months she’d been pushing to change her school mascot that, as a Navajo, she finds offensive and demeaning. So she couldn’t help it after her principal announced it was actually happening, that the name would be dropped before she got her diploma.

“I just got so emotional,” said Lane, a junior at Bountiful High, still fighting tears hours later Monday evening. “We got our voice heard. They finally understood us.”

Principal Aaron Hogge had revealed the contentious decision with a short video that at first Lane was too nervous to watch. He said the process of finding a new “culturally sensitive mascot” will begin immediately after mounting pressure.

Hogge anticipates that will be in place by the beginning of the next academic year, and Lane’s 2022 class will be the first to graduate under the name.

“I could see some students were struggling,” Hogge said. “And so I asked: Is this respectful or disrespectful? Is it unifying or dividing us?”

He paused. “In the end, I realized we were bigger and better than a name.”

Lane just sighed and added, “I’m so relieved.”

The debate over the mascot started as part of the nationwide rallies against racism earlier this year that prompted some towns to remove statues and a handful of sports teams to reexamine their use of Native American names and symbols. But the controversy divided the city of Bountiful, just north of Salt Lake City, where many white alumni from the mostly white school view the Braves as a legacy that honors tribes. The mayor joined them, telling one woman who objected to be “less easily offended.”

On Monday they reacted with backlash and anger. “Bullies pressed for the change,” one man wrote on Twitter. Another called it a “sad day,” suggesting people were being too sensitive.

One alumnus sarcastically asked if the name “Bountiful” would next be considered inappropriate.

As Hogge stood in front of a memorabilia case filled with trophies, pompoms and basketballs — including some with an exaggerated Native American face on them — he said the decision shouldn’t change their pride in Bountiful High or their memories of when they were students. He quoted poet Maya Angelou in saying, “Do the best you can, until you know better. Then, when you know better, do better.”

He said changing the mascot is “appropriate in today’s day and age” — nearly 70 years after it was first chosen in 1951. He was informed by a committee of students and tribal leaders and said even they didn’t all agree.

But he wanted to stand by those who pushed for the name to be dropped, including Lane, who felt the mascot was hurtful — especially for Native Americans. “The Braves” is a vague term that doesn’t refer to any one group, painting all tribes with the same broad stroke, they said. They also pointed to students wearing red face paint and feathers, as well as doing “the tomahawk chop” at games.

Hogge acknowledged in his announcement: “At times, depictions of Native Americans have crossed the line of cultural respect.”

While the principal said he liked the “rich tradition” of courage and bravery he believes the Braves instilled in students, looking at those displays and how Native Americans were portrayed ultimately swayed him. He tried to put an end to some of those traditions this year — including painting over the American Indian drawings on the sidewalks — but they didn’t completely go away with fans because the mascot was still in place.

Lane said she hated attending assemblies where each time a classmate of hers would get onstage in a headdress and start whooping and hollering. Alumna Mallory Rogers said she was embarrassed looking back through her yearbooks and seeing herself in redface before she graduated in 2013.

Together, they started the petition to change the name this summer that got nearly 6,000 signatures.

“I’m really happy I was able to bring it up in my community and my high school,” Rogers said Monday.

Cynthia Sharma, a Navajo woman who graduated from Bountiful High in 2011 and joined the campaign to remove the mascot, added that she was excited Monday to see their impact.

“I just think it’s a win for Native Americans and the community,” she said. “They’ll know that their school stood on the right side of history.”

The Change the Mascot Utah group that Sharma is a part of added in a statement that the decision “is justice served for this past wrong” and commended students for showing true bravery in pushing for the change. The NAACP branch in Salt Lake City and the Utah League of Native American Voters also voiced their support Monday. The league’s cofounder James Singer encouraged other communities to follow the example of Bountiful High.

Residents can now begin submitting ideas and suggestions for a new mascot to the school, Hogge said. It will take some time to go through the process of picking a name and then updating signs and uniforms. The school will keep its colors of red and gray.

The effort will likely be “very pricey,” Hogge added. He didn’t have a figure for the cost Monday, but he believes Davis School District will cover it.

The change will follow a similar — and similarly controversial — mascot update at Cedar High in southern Utah last year. The school board switched the name from the Redmen to the Reds to massive outcry that has continued today.

Meanwhile, other schools in Utah with Native American imagery haven’t had any conversation about removing it. In fact, North Summit High in Coalville also continues to use the Braves. And Escalante High in southern Utah goes by the name of the Moquis for a tribe nearby (though some question whether the term is actually a racist nickname).

Last week, a Utah lawmaker released a draft of her resolution for the upcoming session that would urge all schools in the state to change any “hurtful and racist” mascots. She is an alumna, as well, of Bountiful High.

The measure would also advise the Utah Board of Education and local districts to incorporate new curriculum to discuss Indigenous peoples and cultures, “including the Native Americans that were first on Utah land.” That includes lessons on the Northwestern Band of the Shoshone Nation, who lived on what is now Bountiful before white settlers arrived. Tribal chairman Darren Parry said Monday that he supports the high school’s decision to change its mascot and also supports more education for students.

Lane and her mom, LeMichelle Lane, who helped fight for the change, said that’s important to them, too, moving forward. Using Native people as a mascot, they said, turns them into caricatures and doesn’t acknowledge they still live and exist today.

They hope Bountiful High will teach students about the Navajo Code Talkers who used their language to confound the Japanese in World War II and the chiefs who helped shape the United States before the country was formed. They’d also like to have a cultural week at the school where students of color can talk about their heritage.

“We’ve got to give Native people a voice,” said LeMichelle Lane. “This is just the start.”

“We weren’t teaching about Native American culture, but we were using the mascot,” added Lemiley Lane. “And that’s got to change.”

She wants people to understand, for instance, that she is not a Brave. She is a Navajo. And that’s how she wants to graduate from high school.

(Rick Bowmer | The Associated Press) In this July 21, 2020 photo, Lemiley Lane, a Bountiful junior who grew up in the Navajo Nation in Arizona, poses for a photograph at Bountiful High School in Bountiful, Utah.