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Lansing area high schools rebrand with new mascots and team nicknames, reflecting change in times

Jack Moreland

Okemos and Sexton Highs removed their Indigenous-derived team branding, after consulting with experts and the community. Their actions reflect a greater national movement.

Although thousands are still in use across the country, outdated mascots are starting to be replaced, including right here in Greater Lansing. Okemos High School officially changed its mascot from the Chiefs to the Wolves in early 2022. The district had already gone through a partial rebrand, changing from the Chieftains to the Chiefs, and doing away with a logo featuring a likeness of the town’s namesake, Chief Okemos.

The final change from the Chiefs to the Wolves was encouraged by a new equity plan that the district adopted in 2016.

“We couldn’t have this equity plan when we were violating it with our very name and likeness,” Okemos Superintendent John Hood said.

Jack Moreland

New examples of successful rebrands and increased general awareness of the derogatory nature of these mascots have opened the door for more schools and teams to change their identities. Lansing Sexton High School also rebranded away from a Native American mascot, changing from the Big Reds to the J-Dubbs, but the school was unavailable for comment. The process of rebranding, however, is not as simple as picking a new name and doing away with the old.

Studies have shown that exposure to Native American mascots can have notable negative effects on Native youth such as causing anxiety, lowering self-esteem, and even deteriorating feelings of community worth and expectations of future opportunity to succeed. These negative effects are well-documented and have been topics of discussion for decades now.

Tyler Jimenez, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Washington, focuses his work on racial and social inequalities. Jimenez published a study in 2021, analyzing apparent changes in prejudice towards Native populations following a mascot change.

The survey responses from Jimenez’ study led him to the conclusion that the changing of Native mascots, “might be perceived as threatening to people” and their world views.

“Moving away from using these Native mascots is kind of implicitly admitting that there is a racial problem there and that the way things have been done for a long time has been inequitable and discriminatory,” Jimenez said.

Hood said he heard from some who were opposed to the name change. He said the most vocal were Okemos graduates who felt they had a history and a strong connection with the previous identity. Jimenez acknowledged that these conversations often come with the argument that the mascots are honoring the Native population. Hood said he heard similar thoughts from some in the Okemos community, but ultimately did not see it the same way.

Jack Moreland

“The response from the Governance of Native American Tribes was, ‘We don’t feel honored by it,’” Hood said. “We asked the very people we are trying to honor, ‘do they feel honored by it?’ And the answer was a clear ‘no,’ so we’ve got to do something different.”

Even when a district is able to decide to change a mascot, the cost of the rebrand can be another huge obstacle as logos, signage, athletic uniforms and more need to be replaced. The Native American Heritage Fund (NAHF) was created in 2016 to provide funding to promote positive relationships between Native American tribes and non-Native entities. Helping school districts move on from Native American mascots is included in this goal and the NAHF awards grants to help make these rebrands possible. Since it began distributing funds in 2018, the NAHF has helped 15 schools retire Native American mascots. Okemos Public Schools received $213,663.50 from the NAHF in 2021.

“Versus just sitting there and pointing out the problems, we as the Nottawaseppi Huron Band of the Potawatomi like to provide solutions,” NAHF Chairman Jamie Stuck said.

To be eligible for funding, schools must have consultation and partnership with a federally recognized tribe within the state of Michigan. Stuck said that the NAHF stays in touch with the schools during and after the rebranding in case new costs arise or the community needs further support in embracing the new identity or fostering a relationship with a tribe.

Jimenez stated that a name change for a school is an important first step, but there is more that can be done to respect and represent Native populations appropriately.

“That’s not the last piece of the puzzle. It’s not like we remove [the mascot] and these issues go away,” Jimenez said.

Hood shared a similar sentiment that this change is a move in the right direction but that there is more that the district can do.

“Education is why we exist,” Hood said.

Jack Moreland

He wants to make sure that students are still informed about Chief Okemos and the tribes native to the area. He also said it is important to him that Native Americans are not referred to as if they are in the past-tense. The school district is partnering with the Nokomis Cultural Heritage Center in Okemos to build a curriculum on the Native American history in the area. The new curriculum will also be paired with a lesson on the impact of mascots to help show students why the change was made. Hood said he is very satisfied with the change and that he could not have hoped for it to go any better.

“These things matter,” Hood said. “Things change over time, and we’ve got to be a responsible district. We want to honor that and do what’s right for our students now and in the future.”

Hood said that a group of high school students played a significant role in putting together the proposal of the new mascot to the school board. Jimenez and Stuck both acknowledged that support from students can have a huge impact on the smoothness of the transition.

“The fact that the students are taking ownership of these initiatives is very helpful,” Stuck said. “Sometimes we can learn a thing or two from the youth when it comes to these matters with the open mindedness they bring to the table.”

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