One side says the name Indians has been treated with respect; the other side says it hasn’t. There’s the argument urging to respect tradition; the rebuttal says bad traditions should go away. Cancel culture is cried out by some, while their opposition claims the name marginalizes.
One side has 23 pages of people who emailed the school district to maintain the status quo, typified by John Boston: “All my decades in this community, I’ve never heard a disparaging comment about my mascot, the Indian. We revered these peoples. I’m confident the sentiment is the same with the hundreds of Hart alumni … The Indian mascot? It’s about strength of character. Valuing the land and nature. Certainly, it’s about family and community. It’s also about heroism — that act of being sometimes doomed to failure, or trying and trying mightily, anyway.”
The other side has 24 pages for people who emailed the district to demand a change, typified by Sara Hernandez: “You cannot say that this mascot shows any sense of pride when you also insist on keeping the inaccuracies in the depiction of natives, and refuse to educate the student body on the actual traditions and history of the local natives. This mascot is a caricature that is harmful to our view of Indigenous culture.”
For 76 years, all William S. Hart High School athletic teams have been called the Indians. But that might change this month: The William S. Hart Union High School District Board of Trustees will decide whether the school will continue as the Indians. The question before the board, per the actual text from the meeting minutes: To keep or not keep the mascot at the July 14 meeting and consider ways to honor and educate regarding the indigenous people of the Santa Clarita Valley.
However, as two board members and several community members pointed out, Hart hasn’t had a mascot since the mid-1990s. It has a logo: an “H” adorned with two feathers.
That doesn’t mean there are no on-campus indications. The student newspaper is called the Smoke Signal, the yearbook “Tomahawk.” It took a few more years for the baseball team’s use of the Cleveland Indian’s Chief Wahoo to be removed.
“If there is a problem, it’s got to do with the name ‘Indians,’” board member Linda Storli acknowledged. “The first Native Americans were not Indians. Never were. If Christopher Columbus knew where he was, they’d never be Indians.” (The “Indians” Columbus encountered upon arrival in Hispaniola were the Taino people.)
Nearby, Birmingham High changed from Braves to Patriots in 1998. Alemany High ditched Indians for Warriors in 2006. In April, Burroughs High voted out Indians in favor of Bears.
That same month, Hart’s students voted 49%-26% and the staff voted 50%-38% to keep Indians.
How Hart became the Indians
William Surrey Hart was a famous silent Western movie actor, producer, screenwriter and director who found many Western movies “impossibilities or libels on the West,” he wrote in his 1929 autobiography “My Life East and West.”
Hart made sure to create a more authentic version of the West in his movies, including how North America’s indigenous groups were depicted. This probably stemmed from his time living in the Midwest. According to a biography by Friends of Hart Park, Hart learned Native sign language and some of the Lakota language from his playmates.
A June 27, 1926 article in the Billings (Mont.) Gazette said the Lakota gave Hart the name “Crazy Horse” during ceremonies marking the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Little Bighorn.
Perhaps this information wasn’t lost on the school’s first class. Soon after Hart High opened in 1945, less than year before Hart’s death, the freshman class picked the name. According to the website scvhistory.com, Carl Clymore, who played on the basketball team, suggested Indians; teammate Harry Kidder suggested Buckaroos. Indians won, though it isn’t known how many of the 80 students voted for it. Clymore won $2, about $30 today.
Besides the newspaper and yearbook names, the fight song included the line “and bring a scalp back home.”
Manifestations through the years
How the Hart Indian has been depicted has changed over the years.
By the time Bruce Fortine (Class of 1955) arrived at Hart, the mascot existed as a male Indian similar to what was on the nickel between 1913-1938.
“It was just a name,” Fortine said. “We respected the name and honored the name. It was a part of us.”
But it was mostly used only in athletics. “We were there to get an education,” Fortine said.
His wife, Gloria Mercado-Fortine (Class of 1971) said she felt similar pride, but when she attended, there was a tent in the quad. She called it a “tepee” that could fit three or four people in it.
“It was a symbolic, small tepee,” she said. “Everyone would come together with such social pride.”
During pep rallies, Mercado-Fortine said, a female student would dress in moccasin-style shoes, a faux Native American dress and a simple feather headdress. Her face was not painted.
Mercado-Fortine said she played powderpuff football (similar to flag football), softball and gymnastics at Hart. None of her uniforms had any Native American depictions.
When Linda Peckham arrived as a Hart teacher in 1987, there were a “massive number of different logos,” she recalled. “Students did a lot of artwork on their shirts.” She said the drawings were typically caricatures and “not realistic.”
Peckham coached volleyball, and she remembered one student’s drawing of a fierce-looking shirtless Indian spiking a volleyball. The character wore leather leggings with fringes, war paint on the face and feathers in the hair.
“It was one of my favorites,” she said.
Peckham said she recalled the football team giving out little tomahawk stickers that players would place on their helmet, a practice that continued all the way through her 2020 retirement.
When former assemblywoman Christy Smith (Class of 1987) attended, the cheerleading squad, of which Smith was a member, chose one of its own to dress in a native costume. It was always a girl, Smith said, and she wore tan leather pants, a small crown of feathers in her hair, and beads down the front. Smith couldn’t recall if the girl carried a small tomahawk.
At football games, Smith said, the band played a drum beat and a piece of music that sounded similar to how movies and sports teams depict indigenous war parties advancing on cowboys, “but nothing I can recall that seemed like a war cry.”
By the mid-1990s, the only physical manifestation of a Hart Indian was on the baseball field. Chief Wahoo, a caricatured Native American with a red face, wide eyes, one prominent ear, a bulbous nose, a wide toothy grin and a single red feather protruding from behind his head adorned the outfield wall. Chief Wahoo was widely criticized by Native Americans, social scientists, religious and educational groups as derogatory and a harmful form of ethnic stereotyping. Cleveland retired the logo after the 2018 season.
Mike Devlin (class of 1995) said he didn’t see many depictions around campus, but he refused to work on the student paper because of its name. He considered starting an alternative paper.
“My senior year, they reinstated the student newspaper. I was so excited,” Devlin said. “I went to the first meeting. The administration insisted on calling it the Smoke Signal. That was just shocking, That was something so cartoonish. If anything, they should be shedding their past. The principal said this is not up for discussion.”
How the mascot disappeared
That principal, Laurence Strauss, was the person many said was most responsible for ridding the school of any physical Indian depictions. As Strauss recalled, a young man who wasn’t a Hart student sat in Strauss’ office in the early 1990s and expressed concern and opposition to the Indian as a mascot.
Around the same time, a student’s mother who claimed 100% Native American heritage also expressed similar concerns to Strauss, which led to the family meeting with Strauss, then-Superintendent Clyde Smyth and representatives from the American Indian Movement.
They discussed negative depictions on campus. This included the Tomahawk Chop, which the Atlanta Braves started doing in 1991, spreading from Florida State when FSU alum Deion Sanders played for the Braves, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. But there also was artwork around the school that showed a mean or tough warrior.
“Doing away with the name ‘Indian’ or the mascot, that would have been their desire,” said Strauss, now 84. “We (looked) at those things, the artwork associated with the Indian name, and we’d eliminate the things that depicted the Indian in a negative connotation.”
Strauss, principal from 1983-97, said he also took the concerns to the student government. The students understood the issue and became more conscious of depicting the Indian negatively. But they unanimously rejected changing the nickname.
After the Northridge earthquake destroyed the gym, Strauss ordered no physical depictions in its rebuilding. A feather would be the only indication.
And the fight song line was changed to “and bring another win back home.”
“I have complete understanding and sensitivity to those who’d like to eliminate the Indian as a mascot and a name of school teams,” Strauss said. “I’m sensitive to their feelings, and I’m sensitive to those who have a history with the school and are loyal to Hart Indians.”
Disagreement among indigenous groups
Even among indigenous people and those who refer to themselves as American Indian do not collectively agree on whether the name should stay or go.
On the “stay” side is the North Dakota-based Native American Guardian’s Association, whose website says, “educate, not eradicate.” It seeks more public-school education about Native Americans so their history, tradition and, yes, athletic prowess isn’t lost.
President Tony Henson, himself not a member of the Cherokee tribe despite tracing his ancestry to it, said no one favors derogatory nicknames or logos. Hart’s logo is not offensive, he said.
“You want to say that’s racist? That’s ridiculous,” Henson said from his Champaign, Ill. office. “They don’t have a mascot. The era of Native American mascots is over. They have a logo, and they’re the Indians.”
Most Native American schools calls themselves “Indians,” “Warriors” and “Braves,” Henson said. Among non-native schools, between 80-90% of schools with Native American nicknames are respectful of the name, he said, including Hart.
Since Hart is a non-native school, Henson said, unintentional stereotypes occasionally get perpetuated. Education can solve that, he said.
“You can misappropriate the culture, but if you do it respectfully, it can (keep) Native Americans remembered in modern society,” Henson said.
One of those notably in favor of replacement is the Fernandeño Tataviam Band of Mission Indians. While not a federally recognized tribal group, it is described on the band’s website as “originated in the lineages, villages and culture of the pre-Mission period… an independent nation, exercising its inherent sovereign authority over its tribal citizens and territory.” Despite not being available for a scheduled call with The Proclaimer, the band’s president Rudy Ortega, Jr. made a presentation to the Hart board on Feb. 17, and a statement on its 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.”
During the meeting, Ortega said any Hart mascot depiction resembles the plains cultures and not a local California nation.
“I know many of my tribal people who live in Santa Clarita will (eventually become) Hart High School students. And so when they get there, they should be fairly proud of their heritage, the culture and who they are as native people, along with many other students who attend that school, as well,” Ortega said.
The band’s statement later reads, “It is demeaning to depict us – the First People of northern Los Angeles County – as mascots because it does not honor our history, ancestors or culture. Rather, it perpetuates dehumanizing and harmful stereotypes about Native Americans and promotes over-generalizations about a culturally diverse and unique peoples.
According to the state Department of Education, no one identifying as American Indian or Alaska Native attends Hart. The only school reporting anyone identifying that way is West Ranch High School at 0.1%.
This isn’t the first time the school board has been met with this subject. Mercado-Fortine, who served on the Hart board from 1997-2015, recalled one time early on in her tenure a representative from a local indigenous group registered a complaint. The board responded by determining the nickname was respectful but ultimately let the school decide.
“We’re not going to get involved,” Mercado-Fortine said.
However, College of the Canyons political science instructor Phil Gussin said, society has grown more ethnically diverse, and nonwhite groups also have grown more vocal.
“(The country is) becoming less white in terms of dominance. As that happens, groups that previously thought they’re not recognized are asking for more respect for their culture and history,” Gussin said. “On the reverse side, people want to (keep) traditions.”
Santa Clarita has become a microcosm of the country, Gussin said, in that its congressional district is as purple as any swing state and there are enough people on both sides of an issue, but not enough to win decisively.
What will the board do?
By deciding to vote, the current Hart board is taking a more active approach. Only two members commented; the other three didn’t return calls.
But maybe Ross Bradder has a sense of how the matter will end.
Bradder posted on Facebook that his cheerleader daughter and the rest of the spirit squad have been told “that they have to spend money to redo the logos on their cheer boxes and may be forced to replace their letterman jackets by this nonsense.”
Board member Joe Messina seemed to side with keeping the Indian name, but stressed the need for more education.
“Why aren’t we teaching what’s the Native American look like in the area? Shame on us for that,” he said. “If the complaint is we don’t portray Native Americans in a respectful and honorable manner, how about let’s teach. How about the Tataviam come and teach, so (students) can have a grasp of what they went through?”
Messina wondered if the other local high school nicknames would go next. “Do we take Vikings out? Vikings were known to go into villages and kill everyone. Centurions? They nailed Christ to the cross. Cowboys, they were terrible to Native Americans. When does it stop? Where’s PETA when you need the Wildcats, Grizzlies, Coyotes?”
Storli, who taught at Canyon for many years, whose daughter Jennifer graduated from Hart in 1993 and whose stepson, Brandon Koontz, teaches at Hart, said she understands how this issue has two sides, much like the arguments surrounding whether to remove Confederate statues. She said she doesn’t know how she’ll vote.
“I think we should make a decision sooner of later,” she said. “I don’t think we should tie it up anymore.”
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