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California

‘Redskins’ ban angers fans of California schools still using the mascot

Tulare Union High School

Tulare Union High School’s Redskins mascot permeates student life, extending to the costumes worn and signs carried by students in parades. Under a new state law, the school must replace its nickname with a new one by 2017.

(Michael Alvarez )

The caller was angry, urging Tulare Union High School to defy a new state law requiring it to drop “Redskins” as the mascot for its sports teams.

“Gosh, he was kind of inappropriate,” Jennie Daniels, the principal’s secretary, said Monday after fielding the latest in a string of calls about the measure. “But everyone is disappointed.”

In signing the bill Sunday, Gov. Jerry Brown made California the first state to ban a term that is now widely considered a slur against Native Americans. The four schools that still use the nickname — three of them in the San Joaquin Valley — must find new ones by 2017.

In Tulare and the other towns, disappointment was a common though not universal reaction, with residents, students and school officials calling the law an attack on tradition — one they said was never meant to offend. Others praised the law, saying it was time to accept that the term is outdated and hurtful.

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Mello Harris, the star running back on Tulare’s undefeated football team, thought his team’s name was meant as a sign of respect, not as an insult.

“I haven’t heard anyone, not one person, that agrees with the ban,” he said. “We’re the Redskin Warriors — we’ve made it into a positive. I just don’t understand, we’re not trying to offend anyone.”

Mello’s mother, Tulare Principal Michelle Nunley, carefully used the word “disappointed,” but she was clearly mad.

“We took students to the Senate education committee. We thought it would be a great educational experience,” Nunley said. “We had a letter from our local tribe saying they supported us. If they don’t have a problem how can we be causing offense?

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“The senators were rude. They called us insensitive and racist,” said Nunley, who is part Ottawa Indian.

She led the way to a “peace garden,” presided over by Chief Seattle with a famous quote often attributed to him: “The earth does not belong to us. We belong to the earth.”

“See, we take pride in Native Americans,” Nunley said.

The campus is filled with words and images that reflect the current name. A giant Indian chief is painted on the front of the school, another on the gym floor. “Home of the Redskins” is spelled out in letters big enough to read a block away. The hallways are lined with artwork depicting Native Americans. Bulletin board posters scream “Redskin Pride” and “Redskin Love,” and there are Redskin football schedules.

The name has been a part of the school since 1924 — the same year the United States first recognized Native Americans as citizens with some rights.

The local Tule River Band of Indians tribal council wrote a letter in support of Tulare Union keeping “Redskins.”

Because the school “uses its mascot as a sign of pride and honor,” the tribe “supports the school district’s use of its mascot in this way,” tribal Chairman Neil Peyron wrote.

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But 25 miles away at Porterville Union High, a group of girls who are members of the tribe took issue during lunch with the chairman’s letter.

“I think that even if they don’t mean to offend, they should know the history — they should know that’s someone’s history and culture and it’s what their family has been through,” said Madison Hunter, 16.

The letter did not reflect the feelings of the tribe as a whole, said Kidd Valdez, 17.

“If they had asked the kids and the elders it would have been a different answer. We could have told them there are things time does not erase. There are words with a bad history, a bad feeling that does not go away,” Kidd said.

The new law reverberated in the other towns facing a ban.

Gustine Mayor Dennis Brazil wrote on his Facebook page Sunday night that he would continue to fight against the law. “Supreme Court here we come!” he wrote.

But Patricia Snoke, 83, said she was pleased that “Redskins” would be gone from Gustine High School, from which she graduated in 1949.

The school adopted the mascot in the mid-1930s when community members shelved the “Reds” because the color was associated with communism, said Snoke, the town historian.

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“I am not upset that they are no longer the Redskins,” Snoke said. “I believe that is a derogatory term.”

Snoke said she was one of only two people who spoke in favor of changing the school’s mascot at a sparsely attended community meeting six months ago. But she said there were lots of people among the town’s 5,000 residents who privately agreed with her, citing results of the local newspaper’s online poll.

“You had a lot of vocal people in Gustine but then you had a majority that thought that the name should be changed,” Snoke said. “The silent majority said no, no, it’s time for a change or they didn’t care.”

Chowchilla Union High School District Supt. Ronald Seals said he understood that the term may be offensive to some people, but his community has always respected the mascot.

“The alumni, they’re angry,” Seals said. Lawmakers “are taking away something loved and respected in this community. The author of the bill doesn’t live here. Some of the supporters for making the change don’t even live in the state yet they are telling us how we should live in Chowchilla.”

Chowchilla Mayor John Chavez said disapproval was already apparent in his city of more than 18,000. Residents were posting Facebook messages defending the mascot, which has been used since 1928.

“When you’re such a small town, the little things that you take pride in mean a great deal to you and it’s going to hurt,” Chavez said. “Because they are proud to call themselves Redskins.”

In Gold Country, Dahkota Brown had captured national headlines for his vocal opposition to the mascot at Calaveras High School.

“There is no way these schools chose their mascot out of honor or respect when natives were not considered full citizens and could not even vote at that time,” Dahkota, a high school student in neighboring Jackson, said at a hearing for the bill this year.

In a Facebook post Sunday, Dahkota wrote: “I know I’ll be in college by the time the change occurs but I find peace in knowing my younger peers can obtain an education free from mockery and hold their head high with pride in their ethnicity.”

At Tulare High, news of the ban made Connie Prado a center of attention.

“All day long people have been asking me, ‘Are you the last Indian princess?’” Connie, 16, said. As the school mascot, she wears a fringed dress that she designed herself and a long feather headdress when she leads the Tomahawk cheers and “Spirit Dance.”

“It used to be called a war dance,” she said. “But it was changed 15 years ago. We didn’t want to offend anyone.”

diana.marcum@latimes.com

Twitter: @dianamarcum

zahira.torres@latimes.com

Twitter: @zahiratorres

Marcum reported from Tulare, Torres from Los Angeles.

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