Kids get back Indian head duffle bags

By Jessica Cejnar, The Triplicate August 27, 2012 06:13 pm

After controversy over an Indian head icon caused the Del Norte Youth Football League to retire new equipment bags, a private citizen has purchased them and redistributed them to the players.

Del Norte High School graduate Gabe Lopez said he and his aunt purchased the bags at a cost of about $5,100. Lopez then sent letters home with the players, informing their parents that he was giving the bags to any player who wanted one. He said he gave out all but eight bags Thursday.

“I did not get one negative phone call from anybody,” he said Friday. “I haven’t had one person call me back with a negative comment.”

Each bag is emblazoned with the profile of a Plains Indian in blue and yellow contrast. Instead of depicting a chief with a full headdress — the Del Norte High School logo until it was eliminated by the School Board in 1998 — this logo depicts a warrior with a single feather. 

Controversy over the bags erupted at an Aug. 9 School Board meeting. During the public comment period tribal members from the Smith River Rancheria, the Elk Valley Rancheria and the Yurok Tribe spoke out both for and against the logo. Some argued that the image is a source of pride. Others said that it symbolizes ignorance and was eliminated by the board for good reason.

Although the Del Norte Youth Football League is not affiliated with the school district, it uses school grounds for practices and games, and has used the Warrior name for the past three years. 

League officials reclaimed the bags and put them in storage Aug. 6 because they concerned about not being allowed to practice and play on school grounds, according to League President John Nuszkiewicz.

Nuszkiewcz said league officials had sold the bags to a private citizen, but had no idea what was going to be done with them. Nuszkiewcz added that he doesn’t think Lopez’s action of giving the bags back to the football players will cause any concerns on the league’s part.

“It’s a private citizen making a private donation to a youth organization,” he said. “I wouldn’t think there would be any concern on the league’s part. I’m happy that the kids get their bags back.”

Nuszkiewcz said the league adopted the mascot logo last year when it was used on sweat shirts.

Danny Forkner, the league’s vice president, said officials sold the bags to Lopez in order to recoup the money the league had spent on them. The bags were issued as a part of the players’ uniform.

“The way we look at it, we were being stewards for the kids’ money,” Forkner said. “One way or the other we felt like if they want to pay for them then we could recoup the kids’ money.”

Suntayea Steinruck, whose child is part of the league and who spoke out against the bags, said she was disappointed that the bags were given back to the players. She said she asked her child’s coach if an alternate bag would be offered for any player that wouldn’t be using the bags with the icon on it, but hadn’t received a response yet.

People should realize that the logo represents a real people and a real culture, Steinruck said. She said she supports other mascots that have been suggested, but is worried that they won’t be approved as an alternate.

“It’s not going to matter if someone comes up with a great icon that can be just as proud and honorable because they want this specific one,” Steinruck said. “In the past students at Del Norte High have come up with alternative icons, but they’ve never been embraced.” 

Del Norte Unified School District Superintendent Don Olson said the fact that the bags were returned to the kids may be bothersome to some people. He added that the school district will work with the football league to resolve the issue.

“It’s unfortunate that sometimes the youth in the community gets in between what is a political issue,” Olson said. “I’d rather focus on getting the highest quality football program we can for youth. Personally I don’t like to see them involved in a political issue.”

The School Board will revisit the issue at its Sept. 13 meeting, said Board President Frances Costello. She pointed out that even though several people spoke on the issue at the Aug. 6 meeting, board members couldn’t discuss the issue because it wasn’t on the agenda. 

Lopez, who is a member of the Lytton Rancheria in Santa Rosa, said he’s not offended by the icon and doesn’t know why anyone would be. He added that he was upset when he heard the warrior logo was banned from Del Norte High School in 1998.

“I feel that it’s not degrading at all,” Lopez said. “Personally I think people should be proud that they use the logo.”

To Nuszkiewcz, the warrior logo represents pride.

“Warriors were a very proud people,” he said.

But Steinruck said that while native people are proud of that symbol, it shouldn’t be used as a mascot.

“It’s just not appropriate as a mascot,” she said. “I feel like we could find something that could replace it. It can be all the things we want for our sport teams — to have honor, respect and to show pride. It doesn’t need to be with a living people’s culture or identity.”

The controversy has also spilled over onto the Internet with a “Bring back the head” page on Facebook. It had received 498 “likes” as of Friday.

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