Mary Annette Pember

Indian Country Today

Louise Lawarre took a risk and spent $100 on a large banner thanking the Forest Hills School District for retiring Anderson High School’s R-word mascot days before the school board’s final vote.

It turns out her actions weren’t so risky after all.

After more than 20 years of angry, divisive debate and multiple efforts to change, the district's board, located in Cincinnati, Ohio, voted Thursday to drop the R-word mascot and logo.

“It’s been a big community effort; I’m so proud of everyone who hung in with us,” Lawarre said.

“There was huge opposition to change.”

The debate divided the community into "Changers” and “Keepers," often pitting neighbor against neighbor, lifetime residents against newcomers, alumni against students and everyone in between.

Changers claimed the name is a racist term, no longer appropriate for use in the 21st century, especially for a public school.

The Keepers, however, insisted the name is a matter of pride and tradition as well as an homage to the fighting prowess of Native Americans. They raged against the Changers' claims that the mascot is an expression of racism.

In this mostly white community in a state with no federally recognized tribes and few Native Americans, the arguments have mostly been devoid of input from Native peoples.

(Related: Washington NFL team name is the ‘equivalent of the Confederate flag’)

Previous efforts to change the mascot and logo in 1999, 2003 and 2018 quickly devolved into arguments in which Keepers fervently defended themselves against what they perceived as unfair charges of racism.

Rowdy groups of Keepers dressed in orange Anderson High School T-shirts featuring the mascot name and head of a Plains-style Indian shouted down school board members during public meetings.

“Once a (R-word), always a (R-word); save our skins,” they shouted.

Cowed by such aggressive protests, board members repeatedly decided not to decide and tabled decisions, until Thursday.

Protesters supporting the Black Lives Matter movement and advocating for the Forest Hills School district to retire the R-word mascot and logo line Beechmont Avenue in Cincinnati on Thursday, July 2, 2020. Photo by Mary Annette Pember

Likely prompted by the national movement challenging systemic racism after George Floyd's death and the removal of memorials and statues of historically fraught figures, the five-member board voted 4-1 to make the change after receiving more than 1,000 letters from people on both sides of the issue.

The decision comes amid a renewed push to eliminate racist mascots nationwide. Last week, nearly 90 investors representing more than $620 billion in assets sent letters to three NFL sponsors — Nike, FedEx and Pepsi — calling for the termination of business with Washington's NFL franchise until it changes its team name. 

On Thursday, FedEx called for the franchise to change its name, and Nike removed the team's merchandise from its online store.

In Cincinnati, the safety of virtual meetings due to the coronavirus may have helped put the decision to retire the mascot and logo into motion, according to Lawarre.

Louise Lawarre has worked for over 20 years advocating for the Forest Hills School district to retire its R-word mascot and logo. Photo by Mary Annette Pember

Board members made the decision over the course of two virtual meetings that were streamed on the school district's YouTube channel this week.

Board member Dee Dee Choice introduced the motion to retire the mascot and logo. Choice, who is Black, said: “How can we tell a group of people of a different culture that something is not offensive when they deem it so?”

Board member Patty Taylor argued the district had no funds to make a logo change, especially during a year plagued by COVID-19.

Choice responded, “Hey, I’ll buy the paint (to cover the logos). It is time for us to change.”

The Keepers, however, are unlikely to go down easily. Members of a Keeper Facebook group published personal contact information for board member Leslie Rasmussen, who voted for change. She later reported receiving a threatening, obscene voicemail on her office phone.

An email provided by the district to the Cincinnati Enquirer contained a veiled threat, “Remove the mascot and it’s Game On.”

In explaining her motivation to vote for retiring the mascot and logo, Rasmussen said: “To retire this mascot gives a voice to those who fear using theirs; no one has the right to diminish another’s experience.

“When we know better; we do better,” she said.

A small crowd of Changers met in front of the school district’s headquarters Thursday night, signing Lawarre’s thank-you banner. The sign included a quote from Martin Luther King: “The time is always right to do what is right.”

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Mary Annette Pember, a citizen of the Red Cliff Ojibwe tribe, is a national correspondent for Indian Country Today.