GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — The fight to retire Native American mascots is not unique to Michigan — just ask fans of the Cleveland Guardians or the Washington Commanders. But the Native American Heritage Fund is a uniquely Michigan organization, providing schools and other organizations funding to cover the costs of changes.
The fund was created in 2016 as part of an amendment to a 1988 gaming deal between the Nottawaseppi Huron Band of the Potawatomi and the state of Michigan.
According to Jamie Stuck, the chairman of the NAHF, as part of that gaming deal, the Nottawaseppi Huron Band contributes an estimated $17 million to $19 million to the Michigan Economic Development Corporation each year. The 2016 amendment set aside $500,000 annually to be used specifically to tackle Indigenous cultural issues.
“(That money is placed) into the Native American Heritage Fund in the form of grant funding for any initiatives that are trying to create a positive, respectful and cooperative relationship,” Stuck told News 8.
The NAHF first started distributing grants in 2018. Over the five years since, about 60% of the grants — $1.52 million — have gone to Michigan schools to retire or rebrand their mascots.
The largest gift went to Belding Area Schools. The NAHF awarded the district $334,000 to help replace equipment and signage. Belding, like several other schools and teams across the country, were once known as the Redskins, a term that is considered a slur by Indigenous communities. Many Native Americans, including Stuck, don’t use the term, instead referring to it as the “R-word.”
In West Michigan, Paw Paw, Saugatuck, Chippewa Hills, Saranac and Hartford school districts have also received funding from the NAHF in their retiring/rebranding efforts. The NAHF also donated $98,000 to the Godfrey-Lee Public Schools to help the district rebrand from the “Rebels” mascot that is considered offensive by many people because of its connection to the Confederacy and slavery.
For Stuck, making the changes is not about what is offensive but rather what creates a healthy and inclusive environment.
“What type of environment do these mascots and imagery create at competitive events? If you have certain imagery or certain mascot names that are providing a negative psychological impact on our Native American students’ ability to learn and to feel comfortable in their school setting, that’s where I have an issue,” Stuck said. “I try not to really focus on the offensive end. You know, I was watching the Kansas City Chiefs game yesterday and, you know, the tomahawk chop thing. To some Indigenous people, that could create a very negative sports environment when you have thousands and thousands of people doing that chant around you and representing what you know of your culture as inappropriate and inaccurate.”
Still, the changes don’t play well in many communities and often come with a lot of resistance. It took the Paw Paw Public School District years to agree on a change. After months of debate, the district’s school board voted to keep the mascot in 2017.
It wasn’t until 2020 — and with a new superintendent — that enough leadership at Paw Paw Public Schools agreed to retire the mascot.
“Our nickname is preventing us from realizing our true potential as a school that welcomes, celebrates, supports and challenges all students,” superintendent Rick Reo wrote in a 2020 statement.
Paw Paw moved from the Redskins to the Red Wolves, launching a program called “Welcome to the Pack” to encourage students to feel welcome in the community.
“The student feedback from these surveys is very encouraging. It validates the work our people have been doing in this area and indicates that more and more students understand they are an integral part of our ‘pack’ and feel they are getting the support they need to be successful in school,” Reo said last year.
Stuck said he understands a lot of the pushback and criticism, but he believes inclusivity and alleviating cultural appropriation takes priority over traditions.
“Sometimes you’ll get the rebuttal, ‘What if our school doesn’t have a lot of indigenous students?’ Well, what if you make the playoffs and your districts or your regional matchups or your state finals and you’re playing schools that do have Indigenous students?” Stuck elaborated. “I try to always stress that it’s not just about providing the issues and pointing out what’s wrong and what needs to change, but it’s also providing the solutions and being at the table to chat with people.”
Melissa Kiesewetter, the tribal liaison for the Michigan Department of Civil Rights and a board member of the NAHF, said it’s important to help communities understand the need for change and walk them through it.
“Whether it’s providing comments at a school board meeting where the topic is being discussed or giving presentations on implicit bias and the harm that can come around this. And then we also engage in the actual transition that the schools are doing,” Kiesewetter told News 8.
Kiesewetter said school districts now know they can turn to the NAHF to help them through the rebranding/retiring process.
“Before they even get to the transition process, they may contact us and say, ‘We’re trying to decide how to approach it. Do we take it to a vote? Do we address this at a school board? How engaged should the students be as a part of this?’” Kiesewetter said.
She believes it’s important to keep the students and families involved in the process, so they feel welcome and included.
“The whole goal of thinking about school spirit and mascots is for everyone to feel that sense of belonging, that sense of loyalty,” Kiesewetter said.
There are roughly two dozen school districts or schools in Michigan that still use indigenous mascots. There are two Michigan school districts that still use Redskins as a mascot: Sandusky Community Schools in Sanilac County and Camden-Frontier School District in Hillsdale County.
In April, the Sandusky school board voted to retire the mascot. Earlier this month, Sandusky Community Schools announced three finalists and potential logos for the next mascot. It is asking members of the community to vote on their preference.
School board minutes show the Camden-Frontier Board is considering launching a committee to explore a mascot change, but no action has yet to be taken.
When asked, Kiesewetter wouldn’t acknowledge that the goal is for all schools to drop Indigenous mascots. She noted that some communities have close ties and positive relationships with tribes — most notably Central Michigan University and the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe.
“I think the goal is to ensure that every child, every student can feel connected and feel a sense of belonging. And if an image, if a mascot, if a nickname does not give every child that sense of belonging and does not empower and elevate the self-esteem of every child, then a school should give consideration to changing it,” she said.
MORE THAN MASCOTS
The NAHF’s mission is focused on much more than mascots. It has also helped several municipalities remove inappropriate imagery or messages, including a $76,000 donation to help renovate the site of the Fountain of Pioneers memorial at Kalamazoo’s Bronson Park.
The NAHF has also donated to several colleges across the state to help expand Native American programs, including Northern Michigan University’s course offerings on the Anishinabek language and covering speaker and promotional costs for educational symposiums focused on indigenous cultures.
The Foundation has also donated to several schools and is working on a statewide level to add more Native American history and culture into the state curriculum. The Confederation of Michigan Tribal Education Departments has put together its own social studies guide and a collection of resources to give teachers a more accurate and authentic frame for teaching local Native American history.
“That just goes to show that incorporating Native American history in authentic and accurate ways is most appropriately done when the tribal communities are a part of the process,” Kiesewetter said. “(We can provide) teachers with tools and sample lesson plans or activities that they can incorporate during the times in their particular units, when they might be elevating Native American history.”
Kiesewetter said Indigenous history and cultural impact has been ignored for far too long. A study conducted by researchers at Penn State University in 2015 found that 87% of history or social studies textbooks in U.S. schools don’t include any content on Native Americans after 1900.
“We’ve got to talk about present day. We’ve got to talk about contributions. We need to talk about the tribal governance and the exercising of treaty rights that’s happening right now and how tribal and state and other governments work together in so many wonderful, collaborative ways,” she said.