Utica, Chippewa Valley mascots named in civil rights complaint

By: Brad D. Bates, Robert Guttersohn | C&G Newspapers | Published February 20, 2013

 Utica High was one of 35 high schools in Michigan named in a complaint filed by the state’s Department of Civil Rights protesting the schools’ use of American Indian imagery and themes as mascots and nicknames.

Utica High was one of 35 high schools in Michigan named in a complaint filed by the state’s Department of Civil Rights protesting the schools’ use of American Indian imagery and themes as mascots and nicknames.

Photo by Brad D. Bates

The Michigan Department of Civil Rights filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education Feb. 8 against Michigan schools using mascots that depict American Indians as warriors.

The division is requesting that any such school receiving federal funds change its mascot name and logo.

MDCR says that the use of American Indian names, nicknames and logos creates “a hostile environment and denies equal rights to all current and future American Indian students.”

Among the 35 schools named in the complaint are three members of the Macomb Area Conference — Chippewa Valley High School, which has the mascot name Big Reds, the Utica High Chieftains and Port Huron High, which also uses the mascot title Big Reds.

“We are just waiting for the official communication from (the DCR),” Utica Community Schools Superintendent Christine Johns said, acknowledging the report’s mention of Utica High’s mascot.

“Chippewa Valley Schools does not discriminate against any student on the basis of race, color or national origin,” Chippewa Valley Schools said in a statement. “We will reserve further comment on this issue until we have had an opportunity to fully review the issues raised in the complaint. In the meantime, we will continue to do what we do best, and that is providing an outstanding education in a safe, inviting and supportive learning environment to more than 16,500 local students.”

Chippewa Valley’s current mascot, revealed in 2009, is the Big Red Hawk. In an interview from C & G Newspapers in 2009, then-Assistant Principal Pat Donahue said the hawk was picked because of its ties to Native Americans.

“The hawk has connections with Native American tribes,” Donahue was quoted as saying. “It dealt with taking young ones under their wings and learning.”

One of the high school’s current logos is a capitalized C and V with a pair of feathers dangling from them. According to MDCR, Native Americans see the feathers as holy and view the misuse of it as blasphemous toward American Indian history and beliefs.

Utica High’s use of the nickname Chieftains is part of the school’s storied history that dates as far back as the UCS district itself.

The school’s logo features the profile of an American Indian wearing a feather headdress, and the school boasts American Indian-themed names for its student publications — the Warrior yearbook, Arrow newspaper and Tomahawk video yearbook.

“Utica High was the first school in the school district, and I believe that mascot may have been in place a very long time,” Johns said. “And we want to be respectful of various groups, and we will work through this with the community.”

Students at Utica High were apprehensive about any possible changes to the logo or nickname.

“I think it’s stupid and unfair,” said junior Greg Uctum, who swims and marches in the band at Utica High, noting that he believes Chieftains means a leader.

“It’s unfair because we’ve had this mascot for a really long time, and all of the sudden we’re going to have to change it? It doesn’t make any sense. I’m not going to stop wearing my Chieftain.”

Johns said that resistance might be a moot point, though.

“Based on how the (MDCR) decides to move forward, there may be some other things tied to this, such as federal funding,” Johns said. “And we really need to work with (the MDCR) to make the best move for all our students.”

The MDCR is asking that the U.S. Department of Education establish an opinion for a single national standard on the use of Native American mascots for high schools receiving federal funding.

“We are asking that they provide, essentially, guidance in how they would enforce this two years from now,” said Daniel Levy, the MDCR’s director of law and policy.

Levy said they are not asking the federal government to withhold funding to the named schools.

The complaint cites a series of studies that MDCR says proves the use of stereotypical American Indian mascots “negatively impacts the potential for achievement by students with American Indian ancestry.”

“Recent studies also show how promoting stereotypes of minority groups not only harms students in that minority group, but also contributes to an increased self-image of students in the majority,” according to the complaint. “This effect widens the equal-opportunity gap created by the use of American Indian imagery.”