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Okemos selects new mascot pending school board approval

high school building
Okemos Public Schools
The Okemos Public School district is considering changing its mascot from the "Chiefs" to the "Wolves."

An Okemos Public Schools committee is proposing the Okemos Wolves for the district's new mascot.

The name replaces the Chiefs, whose symbolism is perceived by many as a racist caricature of Native Americans.

It’s been a controversial issue in Okemos since the 1980s, but the change didn’t begin to take root until 2020.

That’s when the community formally asked the school board to consider a new name to align with its diversity, equity and inclusion plan.

Superintendent John Hood says there was some resistance from those who believed the district was moving away from its Native American heritage.

He says they’re doing just the opposite.

“Native Americans are still with us; they’re not relics of the past, and they deserve the respect that we give other marginalized communities in the United States and here in Okemos,” said Hood.

Native Americans are still with us; they’re not relics of the past, and they deserve the respect that we give other marginalized communities in the United States and here in Okemos.
John Hood, Okemos Schools Superintendent

Okemos, itself, is named after John Okemos, a 19th century Ojibwe chief.

Hood says there’s a difference between naming a school after someone and dehumanizing that person through a visual form.

“There’s many schools which honor Martin Luther King, Jr., but you wouldn’t have a mascot of MLK,” Hood added. “That would be wholly inappropriate, and our Native American governance and community spoke to that as one example.”

The mascot committee will present its choice to the Okemos Board of Education next Monday.

The board will take a final vote February 14.

WKAR's Kevin Lavery spoke with Superintendent John Hood to learn more about the previous mascot's controversial history.

Interview Transcript

John Hood: So, this has really been a recurring issue in the Okemos Public Schools that has kept on kind of rearing and then would die down, and it would rear and die down. It’s really been a discussion since the eighties in the Okemos Schools about, "should we have that as our mascot?"

The latest rendition of that was in 2020. The Board of Education and I received a letter signed by, I think, over a couple hundred alumni, students and community members asking the district to really look into some equity issues.

And one of them that they noted was the mascot and the dehumanizing of Native Americans through what we're perpetuating as a school district, and did that really match with our district's values and our equity plan? The board then charged me with, they put a committee together to look at this and come up with a recommendation.

There’s many schools which honor Martin Luther King, Jr., but you wouldn’t have a mascot of MLK. That would be wholly inappropriate.
John Hood, Okemos Schools Superintendent

Kevin Lavery: Was there any pushback to that?

Hood: Yes, there was. We heard from alumni and some community members that were upset and felt that the district was moving away from honoring our Native American heritage, when in essence, really, we're doing just the opposite.

The governance of the 12 tribes of Michigan has supported districts moving away from Native American-themed mascots. The National Congress of American Indians is working actively towards getting not just school teams, but national sports teams to move away from Native American-themed mascots.

We also had the support of the Native American Heritage Foundation who supported us with a grant of about $215,000 to actually help fund moving away from the mascot.

Lavery: I can only imagine the type of effort just rebranding everything. What is it going to take to shift away from that old mascot to the new one?

Hood: So, great question. You know, it takes time for people to connect with a new identity and those traditions will build. The second part of the process is, what will that visual likeness look like? What’s our logo going to be? I think there'll be a lot of excitement around that. That should be done by spring break.

Then, we'll work on starting to order new uniforms, [re-doing] the center of the football field and the basketball court, every place that has that old logo has to be replaced.

We’re hoping to do that within the next year. But wanna really start with student uniforms, because we think that will really excite our students. They want that identity, you know; this year, they’ve just been Okemos.

They want to be able to rally around and have spirit around their participation in the Okemos Public Schools, whether it's an athletic event or a club or community event. So, we really want to give them that name and have them start building that identity. And we think there'll be a real excitement once they can see what it looks like as well.

Lavery: Obviously, the name Okemos itself will stay; that's the name of the school system. I'm wondering if there is a plan to keep that original heritage but reincorporate it into a more positive way.

Hood: We had alumni reach out to us. They have a painting from the class of 1964 of Chief Okemos they want to present to us. I think it's an original oil painting from one of our alumni who happened to become a renowned artist.

And we’re looking also at a potential bond campaign here in November, where we might not only be rebranding the mascot of the district, but we're looking at buildings or athletic facilities that are in need of some significant updates.

So, part of that planning will be thinking about how can we honor the local Native American community within our buildings so it isn't just a name. So, you'll see some artifacts or you’ll see some historical teachings across our buildings, and our bond committee is actively looking into that as well.

Lavery: John Hood is the superintendent of the Okemos Public Schools, which is recommending the new mascot, the Okemos Wolves. That recommendation will go before the board of education on January 24, with a final vote expected on February 14. Thanks again, Mr. Hood.

Hood: Okay, you got it Kevin.

Kevin Lavery is a general assignment reporter and occasional local host for Morning Edition and All Things considered.
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