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Strong Reservations

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

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.

"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.

Houston Indians have taken up the battle since they began their chapter a year and a half ago, Sampson says. He listens to a reading of the list of HISD high school mascots, ones such as mustang, cardinal, panther, Brahman, tiger, ram, Indian (Redskin), buffalo, bulldog, wildcat, colt and lion.

"Stop for a second," Sampson says. "Think of what you're reading. Animal, animal, animal, Indian, animal, animal, animal." Indians aren't animals, he says. He wants the same respect for his people's tribal and spiritual rituals as everyone else's religious icons.

"You don't see any big rubber crosses or priests or rabbis out on the football field," he says. "You don't hear them screaming, 'Kill the Christians!' You simply can't do this to people."

He says he talked repeatedly to HISD board president Laurie Bricker. He showed her the video documentary In Whose Honor? and made her a big binder of nationwide newspaper articles and essays on why Indian mascots need to disappear.

"I tried to get her to understand," Sampson says. "We didn't just show up at a school and start burning it down or handcuffing ourselves to the flagpole, but we're getting close."

He wants the mascots changed because Indian youths have a high rate of alcoholism and suicide. It all comes back to self-image, he says. Big Red's clumsy cartoon character hardly makes for a proud or happy image.

Sampson says he was given a verbal promise in May that the school system's Indian-related mascots would be reconsidered. He remembers Bricker telling him that school was ending, but in September they would conduct a student vote.

According to HISD spokesperson Terry Abbott, that isn't going to happen. Lamar students were "certainly against changing the mascot" two years ago, Abbott says, so there's no consensus to bring the issue back.

Judy Walker, a teacher of advanced English at Lamar, can't believe they left the decision up to students. "This isn't anything you leave to the judgment of a 15- or 16-year-old person," Walker says. "I've always thought it was barbaric. I'm shocked by it, actually. I can't believe anyone would have a human mascot."

Pat Rosenberg, past president of Lamar's PTO and a full-time volunteer at the school, thinks there should be more student forums to make a more informed decision on the issue.

She says they have to deal with Indian feelings but should do it in a way that retains Lamar's 62-year legacy. "We certainly don't want to throw out what has been so wonderful on a whim."

A page from Lamar's 1938 yearbook explains that "Lamarites are known as Redskins by their own choice -- we felt that the Indian background of Texas was sufficient basis for the choice."

Fran Callahan, Lamar's PTO president, says she just got a letter from an alum outraged at people wanting to change the mascot. The Indian mascot wasn't intended to be demeaning, she says.

"They chose it because it was brave and strong and loyal and all those good things, and that's how we have always thought of it," Callahan says. "We don't mean it to be derogatory, and we don't make fun of Indians. We treat it with respect."

But the rub to the Indians is that the school's namesake -- soldier, statesman and educator Mirabeau Buonaparte Lamar -- wanted them dead. In the late 1830s he endorsed "strike and pursue" tactics for Texans battling the Comanche. Lamar had a firm policy of displacement and extinction, Indians say.

"Lamar was a virulent anti-Indian person," Sampson says. "That further adds to the irony of the situation. When he became governor he attempted to rid the state of all Indians."

Sampson looks at the pages from the 1938 yearbook. There's a Plains warrior wearing a Southwest desert Indian's headband. And another picture of a Northwest Indian totem pole in the middle of a Southwest Pueblo housing.

"This is a farce," he says. "Let's place some Jesuit priest in the middle of Jerusalem. This is just retarded. Let's put the pope in the middle of Mecca."

Sampson throws down the stack of papers in disgust.

"There was so much more to our lives than sitting around a fire singing or on horseback," he says. "We were people."  

His friend, a Native American elder, corrects him. "We are people," William Pool says. "We're just invisible to society."

And they don't want to be portrayed by Big Red.

"Having a big, red, toothy, big-nosed thing in a diaper," Sampson says, "you ruin it."

E-mail Wendy Grossman at wendy.grossman@houstonpress.com.


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