Ketchikan pep club apologizes after students dressed as cowboys for a basketball game against Metlakatla, Alaska's only Native reserve

Feb. 12—Members of Ketchikan High School's pep club apologized for "cultural insensitivity" after dressing up as cowboys for a high school boys basketball game against Metlakatla last weekend.

The pep club's decision to dress in a "country" theme for Saturday's game in Ketchikan was widely seen as an affront to players and parents from Metlakatla, an Indigenous community in Southeast Alaska that is the state's only Native American reserve.

Metlakatla Indian Community Mayor Albert Smith, in a letter to the Ketchikan schools superintendent Wednesday, called the pep theme "hurtful and emotionally violent" — recalling a time when, 77 years ago, signs in Ketchikan storefronts read "No dogs or Natives allowed."

The outfits and other actions "created a racially charged environment directed towards our Metlakatla players, the majority of whom are of Native Alaskan (Tsimshian) descent," Taw Lindsey, superintendent of Annette Island School District, wrote in a letter to the Metlakatla and Ketchikan communities on Thursday. Metlakatla High School is part of the district.

The Ketchikan school district was investigating what it called an incident of "cultural insensitivity."

The investigation was ongoing as of Friday, according to a statement. "The District is taking great care to ensure it has gathered and carefully reviewed all relevant information prior to taking any actions or making further statements."

The Kayhi Pep Club, in an apology circulating Friday, said their actions were "not malicious. In retrospect and upon reflection, there was an underlying offensive connection to historical atrocities. We fully acknowledge the cultural insensitivity of the theme and apologize for the harm that it has caused toward Metlakatla and in our own community."

The apology goes on to explain that the "country" theme was randomly selected "with no intention of it being interpreted as 'Cowboys v Indians' " and that the same theme has been used before.

Students testified at a packed Ketchikan Gateway Borough school board meeting Wednesday that they heard noises during the game that looked or sounded like Indian war cries as well as bird calls and barking, according to KRBD community radio.

The pep club addressed the noise, saying "embarrassingly, it is simply a habit that we've been doing every game this year to bark like dogs" at opponents to get them to miss free throws.

"We can not go back in time and correct our misguided decisions, but we can move forward and learn from our mistakes," the apology said. Changes include new approval processes for theme decisions that include "checks for sensitivity relating to culture, race, and gender."

[Ketchikan students dressed as cowboys for a basketball game against Metlakatla, prompting criticism and raw emotions in Alaska's only Native reserve]

The pep club also said its members have "identified a lack of cultural humility within our school and are committed to working with school administration, tribal leaders, and community stakeholders to identify meaningful opportunities to gain knowledge, understanding and rebuild trust among our student body, school staff, community, and neighbors."

Representatives of Annette Island School District and the Metlakatla Indian Community leadership could not immediately be reached for comment about the apology Friday.

The Annette Island district superintendent's letter, however, indicated that the incident went beyond racial insensitivity.

"The actions of the Kayhi students crossed the line and it exposed a much broader historical context of cultural trauma," Lindsey wrote. "AISD hopes that when the investigation is complete, the KGBSD will hold any individuals accountable and will take appropriate action."

The Annette Island School District hopes to address the incident with a solution-based response "through education and an open dialogue" between the two districts and communities, he wrote. "This incident has exposed some of the weaknesses between us: two communities who depend on each other, who are not only neighbors and competitors in school athletics, but who are friends and family."

Ketchikan High School was holding a Saturday night screening of "Alaskan Nets," an award-winning documentary that follows cousins and Metlakatla basketball standouts Danny Marsden and DJ King as they led the team to its first state championship in over 30 years.

The Ketchikan Indian Community, a federally recognized tribe with more than 6,000 members, purchased 100 tickets for community members to attend the screening with proceeds to benefit a memorial fund for Tyler Henderson, another team member who died in December.

"It's all about our neighbors in Metlakatla and how they have been defined for over a century by two sacred traditions: fishing and basketball," Ketchikan Indian Community representatives wrote in a post on Facebook.