Strong Reservations

Indians battle Lamar's "Redskins" and a suspect student vote

Vacationing in Santa Fe, New Mexico, Kenyon Weaver was cold. He pulled out his school sweatshirt, but his mother wouldn't let him put it on.

"You can't wear that," said Jacqueline Weaver, a UH law professor. Kenyon was then a sophomore at Lamar High School, and his mother believed the "Redskins" mascot name in varsity block letters was too offensive to the Native Americans surrounding them in the portico.

Kenyon wanted a school sweatshirt he could wear without offending anybody. So he started his fight to change Lamar's Indian nickname. His avenue came as a senior two years ago, when Kenyon was voted Lamar's senate "Student at Large," the second most powerful student position. Usually the senate argues about dress codes and stupid stuff. Kenyon wanted to change the Lamar symbol.

PTO president Callahan says the Redskin mascot is treated with "respect."
PTO president Callahan says the Redskin mascot is treated with "respect."

"The only decent thing to do -- the only worthy cause -- was the Lamar Redskins," says Kenyon, now an 18-year-old freshman at Harvard University.

First he approached Principal James McSwain about getting rid of the Redskins and the mascot, Big Red.

McSwain wasn't too keen on the idea, Kenyon remembers. (McSwain refused the Press's written and verbal requests for an interview.)

"He didn't really want to do anything that would offend anybody at any point," Kenyon says. "He expressed concern that this would perhaps ruin my senior year since a number of people were against it. That didn't ruin it -- it just made it more spicy, more interesting."

Kenyon says McSwain told him he could try, but if he saw it was affecting the school or Kenyon too much he'd make an executive decision and shut down the effort.

The student senate voted to give Kenyon a nine-member subcommittee: three students, two parents, two alumni and two teachers. The panel decided to take a schoolwide poll on the Redskins, check into costs to replace mascot-related things (like erasing the Indian from the gym floor) and talk to Native American tribes.

Kenyon wrote 33 Native American leaders and called tribes to ask if they found the Redskins offensive. Dorothy Davids, chair of the Mohican Historical Committee, wrote Kenyon that "redskins" is a fine term for describing apples, but not people.

What bothers most Native Americans is that "redskin" doesn't refer to their complexion but rather to bounties placed on their heads. Years ago settlers earned government cash bringing in bloody Indian scalps (the blood made the skin red). They don't like to think about symbols of their forefathers' bare, bloody heads. Just like Jews don't like looking at swastikas and most blacks don't raise rebel flags.

Kenyon's junior-year English teacher, Ann Mahan, a member of the subcommittee, said she'd be in charge of the student poll. (Mahan didn't return calls for comment.) They decided on four questions: Do you find the Redskins offensive? Would you like to change the Redskins? Do you find Big Red offensive? Would you like to change Big Red?

A week before the vote, Kenyon stopped by Mahan's classroom to look over the ballot. Everything was fine.

When Kenyon was handed his ballot on the day of the vote, there were five questions. Mahan had added one asking the students if they'd be willing to pay for the changes.

High school students won't pay for pencils. So -- big surprise -- the 2,043 students voted six to one to keep the names. Kenyon was furious.

"It was guile," he says. "It was 100 percent guile."

He felt the survey was tainted and unfair, and he wanted another. He split from the subcommittee and started talking to students on his own. They asked why he cared, why it mattered, why it bothered him. He threw questions back at them until they decided that he was right.

"It was something out of Plato," Kenyon says.

Kenyon wrote up an opinion piece for his new poll, and he had a student opposed to the change write one too. He printed the two side by side, with the student survey at the bottom of the page.

All he needed was administrative approval to conduct the survey. He never got it.

Two years later the Redskins live and Big Red is still being carried onto the football field. Now the Houston-based Southeast Texas Chapter of the American Indian Movement is taking up Kenyon's fight, wanting all HISD schools (including Lamar) to eliminate Indian mascots.

Lawrence Sampson, a Delaware Eastern Band Cherokee and spokesman for the Houston-based AIM chapter, just sent a packet of 20 letters to the Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights in Dallas.

He thinks schools are violating federal education laws against discrimination. He's hoping the federal agency will conduct an investigation, at the school's expense, and obliterate the offensive mascots, just like it did last year in Dallas when all ten Indian-related mascots were banished. He wants to take his son to football games and not have to cringe.

"We want them all changed," Sampson says. "Period."

Yes, this is old news. Yes, the fight against Ted Turner's tomahawk chop happened years ago, and yes, the Atlanta Braves are still playing. Indians have been fighting this issue for 30 years, and they're not stopping.

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