William S. Hart High School’s “Indians” mascot has come under fire in recent months as current Hart students, Hart alumni and members of the Santa Clarita community reflect upon the offensive nature of race-based mascots.
The issue has been discussed at multiple recent William S. Hart Union High School District board of trustees meetings as board members navigate future decisions to be made regarding the mascot, which have included discussions with the Fernandeño Tataviam Band of Mission Indians, the original inhabitants of the Santa Clarita Valley.
During a virtual meeting on Feb. 17, Rudy Ortega Jr., tribal president of the Fernandeño Tataviam Band of Mission Indians, spoke to the board regarding his people’s history, their culture and his thoughts on the mascot.
“Many times in elementary [school], a teacher would say, ‘All the Indians are dead.’ I had to raise my hand and say, ‘What are you talking about? I’m right here,’” Ortega said. “They thought that in Los Angeles, there’s no more Indians. No more Native Americans. No more indigenous peoples to these areas. So that’s why when we talk about this mascot, it’s a difficult challenge because we know there’s been some legacy that has been put in place, some history that has been put in place. But without change, my people would have been suppressed still. We would not have been granted citizenship rights. We would not have been granted the right to freedom of religion to practice our ceremonies.”
“We see these challenges and these conversations around such issues as mascots or holidays or certain items. We feel, in my tribe [and] in my leadership as well, that we have the conversation and dialogue,” Ortega continued. “Because as we see it, we need to understand what [were] the hurdles, what’s the obstacles, what’s the emotional ties to something that has detrimentally changed the face or that has changed the outlook of what we are as native people, or what we are as a community.”
A statement from the Fernandeño Tataviam Band of Mission Indians’ website “supports the removal, retirement, and replacement of race-based mascots, symbols, and images and personality by schools, colleges, universities, athletic teams, and organizations within its homelands of northern Los Angeles County, including the Simi, San Fernando, Santa Clarita and Antelope Valleys.” Removal of such iconography is a true gesture of equality and justice, according to the statement.
“Race-based mascots do not honor the unique and challenging histories of Native Americans, nor do they produce a sensitive atmosphere for today’s Native American youth who are students of these schools or playing on opposing sports teams,” the statement reads. “Keeping a race-based mascot sends a clear message: that a school district values their school pride based upon race-based imagery more than the harmful psychological and emotional impacts it has on real-life Native students.”
The National Congress of American Indians (NCAI), the most representative group of Native Americans with a council representing over 50 tribes,, has advocated for the removal of Native American mascots in schools, sports teams and more since 1968. The NCAI personally reached out to the Hart District school board denouncing Hart High School’s mascot. While there have been large positive advances as a result of this movement, the campaign is far from accomplishing its main goals — to end the use of harmful “Indian” mascots in popular culture across the United States as they advocate for civil rights, social justice, and racial equity of Native American people.
When it comes to Hart High School’s “Indian” mascot, changes were made to adjust and revise the mascot in the 1990s after Hart High School’s Principal at the time, Laury Strauss, met with the American Indian Movement (AIM) to discuss their concerns with the mascot. After this meeting, it was decided that the school would do away with any artwork that depicted the Indian in a negative way; change the wordage of the fight song, chants and cheers; implement curriculum surrounding Native American culture into history classes; and ban the usage of the headdress at rallies and sports games, Strauss explained during a Hart District Board Study Session on Feb. 9.
However, Hart High School Principal Jason d’Autremont revealed at the same Feb. 9 meeting that some of these practices that were previously banned had worked their way back into campus culture at Hart High School, including chants and the wearing of the headdress.
The board of trustees have yet to decide whether the mascot should be retired and changed or remain the same. During the Feb. 9 study session, board members shared their personal thoughts and concerns. Opinions among the board were mixed.
“I heard the term several times: ‘Let’s not offend anyone.’ I’m sorry, utopia is a long way off. You’re always going to offend somebody, especially in today’s environment,” board member Joe Messina said. He later added, “We talk about meeting the challenges of the future, but life’s not always fair or comfortable. Why aren’t we going to teach our kids how to deal with these situations?”
Following Ortega’s input during the Feb. 17 meeting, members urged for further discussion with the community. Board president Cherise Moore noted to members that it could be several months before a decision is made.
“I appreciate that we are discussing this,” board member Linda Storli said on Feb. 17. “…when they took down the caricature and all that, I felt like they made a big step forward. But any race-based name, I think, is something we need to think about removing. I understand Dr. Moore wants to bring in students and all this – I would like us to not let this dangle.”
Storli advocated for a specific time dedicated to a final decision. She added that if the mascot is “offensive to some or many, I think we need to make a decision to take it away.” Storli urged for a decision so that the issue does not roll into the next year.
Dr. Moore explained that this discussion may take several months of learning and evaluating the choices that need to be made.
Due to the resurfacing of previously banned actions connected to the mascot, Hart High School alumni Grace Gooneratne created the aforementioned change.org petition titled, “Retire Hart High’s ‘Indian’ Mascot,” in June of 2020, which since garnered over 18,000 signatures and counting.
Soon after the petition’s creation, Gooneratne and her two friends, Julia Estrada and Kathryn Supple, created the social media campaign known as Retire Hart Mascot on Instagram.
“The posts we’ve made are mainly to educate people who look at the social media, to educate them on why these mascots are offensive,” Supple said. “We’re just trying to explain why it’s harmful because a lot of people don’t know too much about the reasons behind why we actually want the mascot changed. They just think, ‘Oh, they just want it changed because it’s not politically correct,’ and all that. But, there’s actual issues behind the mascot that people are unaware of.”
“I am Native American, and I have actually grown up going to the powwows out here and being fairly involved with it as much as I can,” Estrada said. “Given the history that I was always taught growing up, it was uncomfortable to see an inaccurate representation of a Native American at my high school. It was uncomfortable to hear students call themselves ‘Indians,’ when they’re not Indian simply because it is a mascot. I was pretty involved, I went to lots of school events… it would make me uncomfortable when I would see students wear and throw a headdress to each other in the spirit of Hart High School.”
In June 2020, d’Autremont said the school board received the change.org petition calling for the retirement of the mascot. Since then, Hart High School has made changes such as removing the headdress and wordage in chants once again, while the school board has been working closely with the Retire Hart Mascot campaign leaders as well as with the Fernandeño Tataviam Band of Mission Indians in order to learn more about the issue.
You can explore the Retire Hart Mascot website for more resources regarding the removal of race-based mascots across the United States, ways to help Indigenous groups throughout the country and information studies relating to the effects of race-based mascots. You can also follow their Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook Group to keep up to date with their campaign.