Frank Dowd, who spoke to the Del Norte County Unified School District Board of Trustees on behalf of Resighini Rancheria, said the rancheria supported use of the high school’s Native American head icon, which was retired in 1998. He said he and other tribal members found it offensive when the high school adopted the Spartan helmet icon last year.
“You had a proud Native American head up there, which we loved and we do support it,” Dowd said. “You take that down and you become this Spartan warrior. What you’re telling me is this European Spartan warrior is a better warrior mascot than a Native American. How is that non-offensive?”
Superintendent Don Olson acknowledged that he had several conversations with Dowd and added that he received a letter from the Resighini Rancheria. In his letter, Chairman Rick Dowd states that the Spartan icon “displays racial intent” to the tribe and is highly offensive. He suggested reinstating the high school’s previous W or DN logos.
Olson, however, disagreed.
“We’ve spoken with our legal counsel and based on a thorough review of this issue, we presently cannot see any reason that this helmet would be offensive to anyone in this community,” he said. “That’s presently where we stand on the issue.”
Resighini Rancheria’s request comes about two years after controversy was reignited over use of a Native American head icon on duffle bags issued to Del Norte Youth Football League players, who also use “Warriors” as their mascot. At the School Board’s Aug. 9, 2012, meeting, youth football league representatives said they felt the image was a source of pride.
At that meeting, members of the Smith River Rancheria and Yurok Tribe urged board members to uphold the district’s 1998 rule, saying they felt the icon mocked their heritage and tradition. But Elk Valley Rancheria Vice Chairman Mike Mattz supported reinstating use of the head icon districtwide.
“It may not be Tolowa; it may not be Karuk; it may not be Yurok. But it is Indian. We’d rather have an Indian on there than a mystical cougar or whatever there might be for a mascot,” he said.
When they were asked to bring back the Native American head, district officials cited Board Policy 5135, which states the governing board recognizes symbols such as school colors, song, motto, flag and ring as long as they “cast no aspersion upon any members of the school community with respect to color, race, sex, national origin or creed.”
In response to the renewed controversy, Del Norte High School’s student government sought to end the vitriol by working with the community and their peers to come up with a new icon.
After conducting several online surveys, the high school narrowed its choice to the Spartan helmet last year. Then-principal Coleen Parker said that icon received more votes than any other option.
Dowd, who coaches the local Amateur Athletic Union basketball team, said Thursday he used the Native American warrior head icon on his team’s jerseys only to find out that they wouldn’t be allowed in the district’s facilities and gyms. He said his children were also ridiculed by their classmates for wearing clothing with the warrior head icon.
Dowd said the Resighini Rancheria didn’t participate in the initial 2012 discussion about the Native American head symbol, but he talked with Superintendent Don Olson when the high school began looking for a new icon.
“When this was all going on and the Native American warrior head was not on there for a vote, I did meet with Mr. Olson and asked him, ‘Why isn’t this put on there? Why do we not get a chance to vote for this?’” Dowd said.
Board President Don McArthur said that when the mascot controversy reignited in 2012, it was difficult for him and his colleagues to make a decision about what the icon should be, so they left that decision up to the community.
“We really thought we were choosing an icon, not really a symbol, but an icon that would be minimally offensive to anybody,” he said. “We went through the process, and I remember when we were going through the process we were asking people if this is going to be sufficient.”
McArthur said he attended the University of North Dakota when its mascot was the “Fighting Sioux.” At the time, he said, no one thought anything of it, but a determining factor for him was reading information from the U.S. Office for Civil Rights on the use of caricatures as mascots.
“(It) had the potential to adversely effect the development of the self esteem of those youngsters,” McArthur said. “That was what I was paying attention to. We have people from tribes on both sides (of the issue). To me, the only thing I could do is to go on what the research was.”
McArthur and Olson pointed out that even though Del Norte Unified School District doesn’t want its athletic teams using symbols that could adversely affect a child’s self esteem, it doesn’t have jurisdiction over community sports teams.
According to the school district’s policy, its athletic teams cannot use any logos or pictures of any Native American or ethnic group, Olson said Friday. This includes using a headdress, raised spear or tomahawk icon. Also, because there is a policy against the depiction of weapons, a sword couldn’t be used with the Spartan logo, he said.
But due to California’s Civic Center Act, the school district, which is a public entity, can’t dictate what another group wears in district facilities “as long as it’s not something outrageous,” Olson said.
“There was some thought that since the school district has a policy we could make every team adhere to our dress code,” he said. “But according to our legal counsel and the Civic Center Act, we’re not allowed to discriminate against those whom we rent our facilities to. If we’re going to allow Youth Football or AAU Basketball to use our facilities, we can’t tell them what type of mascot or team name they can have.”