Emily Jo Cureton, The Triplicate

Duffel bag logoreignites debateover DN icon

For some, the head emblazoned on duffle bags recently issued to Del Norte Youth Football League players stands for hometown pride and tradition.

In the words of league president John Nuszkiewicz: "Something you are going to protect and you are going to fight for."

For others, the profile of a stereotypical Plains Indian in blue and yellow contrast is a throwback from the past, symbolizing ignorance and banned for good reason by the Del Norte County Unified District School Board back in 1998, before any of today's Youth Football League players were even born.

"There's a lot of things that we used to do that we don't do anymore because they aren't right," said Suntayea Steinruck at Thursday's School Board meeting. She's the parent of a league player and a Smith River Rancheria tribal member.

The old mascot issue came front and center during the meeting's public comment period.

While the Youth Football League is not affiliated with the school district, it plays on school grounds and has used the Warrior name for the past three years.

Last Monday, league officials reclaimed the controversial bags and put them into storage, "because we were afraid of losing our practice and game facilities," Nuszkiewicz told the Triplicate. (School Superintendent Don Olson confirmed this could have been a worst-case-scenario.)

Steinruck said she offered to sew something over "the head" or help alter the bags so the kids could keep them, to no avail.

League equipment manager and assistant coach Scott Skerik urged board members to involve the community in picking a new district-wide mascot, and soon.

"We needed a mascot. And we went with a traditional mascot," he told the board.

Skerik okayed the bags bought using league funds, after the designer donated the familiar but slightly updated artwork. Unlike the old mascot, this one doesn't don a chief's full headdress. At the artist's suggestion, it depicts a warrior instead of a chief, Skerik explained by phone Friday.

Vice-chairman of Elk Valley Rancheria Mike Mattz spoke in support of reinstating "the head" district-wide: "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.

A few turns later, Assistant Education Director for the Yurok Tribe Kerry Venegas argued oppositely, urging the board to uphold the 1998 decision and ensure that this reincarnated image stays off school property.

More tribal members spoke up on both sides of the debate. The issue wasn't on the agenda, so the board's response was limited to a promise that its Sept. 13 meeting will include an open discussion.

In all, 11 people spoke about it - the room swelling with tension as the orderly progression of speakers stepping up to a podium briefly turned into a back and forth debate, voices pinching in anger, a mother's eyes welling in frustration.

But times have changed for the bulk of public input.

A movement to "Bring Back the Head" joined Facebook on Tuesday. As of Friday afternoon, 340 people had "liked" the anonymously administered page and about 300 comments had been posted, for and against "the head."

The words roll on and on, saying the image is a source of pride, not mockery, that "the head" is a celebration of Del Norte's history and that most people here aren't offended anyway.

Others point to a history of state-sanctioned genocide throughout the first 100 years of American history and particularly in Northern California during the 1850s and 60s, when people who killed Native Americans were paidby the scalp.

Class of 2001 Del Norte High alumnus Zach Eacret was quick to comment after "the head" page popped up on his news feed, saying he'd stand on the sidewalk and hold a big warrior head at every youth football game if he could. He was a freshman when the mascot was banned.

"I remember the whole school being angry. I was angry. We didn't understand why it was taken away. We were told it offended some people, but not all people. They gave us options to vote on a new mascot. No one was going to vote for anything because we just wanted the warrior head," he told the Triplicate by phone from his home in Chico.

As the Facebook page filled up with more and more impassioned comments over the week, Eacret decided to delete his initial input. He explained how one point in particular struck a new chord with him, after 15 years.

"It said something like: how can Indian children be proud of their heritage when they see a stadium full of people mocking their heritage and their tradition? It kind of blew me away and it made sense. It doesn't matter if it doesn't offend everyone. If it makes any child feel that way, it's not a good thing," he said.

Standing outside the School Board meeting Thursday, Steinruck cited this former Warrior's reconsideration as one good thing that could come out of the controversy, from her perspective.

In front of the School Board, she mentioned being a high school coach.

"I always taught my girls warrior pride. We always cheered for being a warrior. But we never used that icon. And I told them why. I don't want other people to make fun of who I am. I'm not going to allow another school to make fun of being native," she said.

In May of this year the state of Oregon banned the use of any Native American imagery in school mascots, a law to be implemented by 2017. California was 6 Senate votes shy of passing a similar bill in 2002.

The nationwide debate dates back to the 1960s and many public schools and universities have either abandoned Native American-themed mascots, or retooled them to reflect local cultures and traditions more closely.

While it still carries the Warrior nickname, Del Norte High has been without a mascot for 15 years.

"I think the best thing that's going to come out of this is the high school and the community will have a mascot. And as Youth Football we will embrace whatever mascot that is," Nuszkiewicz said Friday, adding that, "It's pride for your community. The community is proud of our Native American heritage. We believe that having that head is showing our pride in the community and in no way, shape or form a disrespect."

Reach Emily Jo Cureton at ecureton@triplicate.com.