‘It’s derogatory’: one man’s four-decade fight against his town’s Native ‘mascot’

·5 min read

On a recent Friday evening, the teenage daughter of the then mayor-elect of Morris, Illinois, about 60 miles south-west of Chicago, led her high school’s marching band on to the football field wearing a headdress, face paint and clothes resembling Native regalia.

As the band played the “war cry” for the pre-game event, the student, with her reddish blond hair in braids, stood in a wide stance in the middle of the field with her arms crossed.

It was a familiar scene for Morris Community high school, a school of about 850 students, none of whom are Native, according to a 2019 Illinois report card. Its mascot has long been “the Redskins”, a term widely considered a racial slur against Native Americans.

Current and former students told the Guardian most home football games involve a white student who has been named “chief” dressed in an outfit meant to resemble Native regalia.

But it is this practice, along with the school’s mascot, that Ted Trujillo – considered the only enrolled tribal member of a federally recognized tribe living in the small city and an alumnus of the school – has been fighting against for nearly four decades.

“It’s racist. It’s derogatory. It stereotypes a whole race of people,” Trujillo, 51, told the Guardian. “It appropriates our sacred culture and traditions. A headdress has meaning in the Native world; the regalia, everything has meaning.”

Trujillo filed a formal complaint with the superintendent and president of the school board last month, demanding an independent investigation of the events at the game. He explained he was told by the superintendent weeks before the game that the practice would no longer take place. The superintendent, principal and school board president did not return requests for comment.

“This incident needs to be treated as a racial incident and not treated as anything less than a racial incident,” Trujillo wrote in the complaint that he shared with the Guardian. “Morris high school in the past has left out Natives from their racial harassment and discrimination policies along with their policies for students.”

In response, the school board president, Scot Hastings, told him that the subject of his complaint was not covered by the board of education’s uniform grievance procedure, so the district won’t be taking action, according to the email shared with the Guardian.

Despite the ongoing nationwide reckoning over racial injustice, and Washington’s own professional football team removing “Redskins” from its name, almost 50 high schools in the US still use the “Redskins” mascot, according to an analysis of MascotDB.

The years of work by Trujillo and other like-minded community members and students in Morris to get rid of the high school’s mascot and accompanying traditions, illustrate just how challenging making such a change can be.

Trujillo, a member of the Passamaquoddy Tribe in Maine, attended Morris Community high school in the mid-1980s and said he remembered seeing white students dressed up like Native Americans and his peers mocking Native dances. In a particularly disturbing incident, he said a school coach repeatedly referred to him as a “Redskin”. The experiences, Trujillo said, resulted in him leaving the school in the 11th grade.

In the ensuing decades, he has attended school board meetings, arguing for the removal of the mascot, called and sent numerous emails to school officials, and also distributed reports and studies on the issue.

Within the past two years, he said he had noticed a positive shift. School athletic uniforms now tend to feature the letter “M” rather than the mascot and the football field turf doesn’t feature the word “Redskins”, he explained. And then last month when he drove out to the school, he said he was stunned to see the large “Welcome to Redskins country” sign gone.

“I actually had to drive around the block because I couldn’t believe it,” he said.

There has also been movement at the state level. Trujillo has been working with the Illinois representative Maurice West, a Democrat, on legislation that would prohibit schools in Illinois from having a Native American logo or mascot unless it receives express approval from local tribes.

Taylor Raffe, who graduated from Morris 16 years ago, has Native ancestry and has also been working to change the mascot, said recently she had noticed overall more support for this effort from the community, including school board members.

“There’s actually a good majority of the town that seems to be in support of changing it,” she said.

Over the summer they held a protest in front of the school and most cars that went by honked in support of getting rid of the mascot, according to Trujillo.

Several weeks ago, the board of education launched a committee to examine the issue in part in response to Trujillo’s concerns. Raffe and Trujillo both serve on the committee and said at the second meeting a consensus was taken and the vast majority of members supported replacing the mascot.

But just days later, and after the first home game of the season did not feature a student dressed in what was meant to be Native regalia, according to current students, it was a surprise for many involved in this effort when the then mayor-elect Chris Brown’s daughter appeared on the field (Brown, who has since been sworn into office, did not return a message seeking comment).

“I was under the impression that we weren’t going to do it any more,” said Alex Duffy, 18, Morris’s student body president who supports replacing the mascot. “I think that’s kind of because we assembled this committee, it’s being seriously looked at it, there’s legislation right now.”

Trujillo said he was less surprised and more angry about the events at the game because he felt he had been lied to. He said despite the series of recent positive changes, he was left wondering how to get this work back on track after this latest blow.

“It is very challenging, because you’re dealing with people who have been told their whole lives, by their fathers, their grandfathers, their coaches, their teacher, that it’s honoring, it’s honoring, it’s honoring,” he said. “So they tend to believe it.”