Joel Briscoe: How little we know about American Indian culture

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Bountiful High School, home of the Braves, Monday, July 6, 2020.

I support the decision by Bountiful High School Principal Aaron Hogge to end the school’s use of the “Braves” mascot at the end of this school year and to adopt a new name for its identity and mascot. Why? Let me tell you some stories:

My personal connection with Bountiful High essentially began in 1957. I had not seen my first birthday when my father, Ray Briscoe, started his teaching career as a social studies teacher at Bountiful High. I spent hours with dad in his classroom, and at many Bountiful High school events.

My oldest daughter, Laura, spent her junior year in high school in Germany (2000-2001). Her maternal grandparents emigrated from Germany in the 1920s and she wanted to learn the German language. She lived with a German family and attended the local gymnasium (high school) where she took all her classes in German.

On one of our weekly phone calls, Laura informed us that one of her German friends told her that after studying American Western history, she had decided to learn to speak American Indian.

My daughter asked her German friend which Native American language she was going to learn.

“You know,” her friend replied, “American Indian.”

My daughter patiently explained that there were over 500 individual Native American tribes in the United States, and many, many Indigenous languages still were spoken, but to no avail. Her German friend knew there were American Indians, and they all spoke one language — American Indian.

That same year, I looked up from my computer in my classroom to see one of my son’s best friends standing at the door.

Travis was dressed in his school sweats. He was a member of the East High School wrestling team, and the region wrestling tournament was being held at Bountiful High School. Travis knew I was a teacher at Bountiful High School, where I had been teaching since 1987, and he found me during my preparation period.

We spoke for a few minutes, and I walked Travis back to the gym. Travis is full-blooded Navajo. As we walked down the third floor hall, Travis looked up at the various Native American symbols that had been attached to the top of the walls above the doors and lockers. He called them out as we walked: “That’s Lakota, and that one’s Apache.” He stopped and laughed, “And that one’s Hollywood!”

I was an American history teacher. I considered myself somewhat educated about the history of Indigenous people in the Americas. But as Travis called out the various tribes, and the designs and symbols that each did and didn’t belong to, Travis taught me I knew next to nothing about the various “Indian” signs and symbols that were being used to symbolize our school’s status as the “Braves.”

We can chuckle at my daughter’s German friend because she knew so little about the culture and history of the Indigenous people of America. But how much did I know? How much do any of us know?

Like many Americans with European ancestors who emigrated to the United States, I can tell you quite a bit about the various languages, history, art, music and literature of different European cultures. I can’t do the same for Native American tribes who inhabited North America before European colonization.

Bountiful is where I was raised and where I spent my teaching career. I love the community and the many young people whom I was able to teach and learn from in my classrooms.

I love the fact that Bountiful High School has listened to its students, parents and patrons about changing the mascot. I love that the school has decided to show Indigenous communities the respect they deserve.

Joel Briscoe

Joel Briscoe, Salt Lake City, represents District 25 in the Utah House of Representatives. He taught American history and U.S. government and citizenship at Bountiful High School from 1987 to 2008.