When the nation looked in on itself, evaluating its systemic racism and fighting for social justice, the Okemos Public Schools decided it was time to reconsider its mascot.
“Last summer with this renewed focus on racism and social justice, we got feedback from many alumni, current students, and community members asking us to evaluate this,” said Dean Bolton, the president of the Okemos School Board. “It was time to make sure that everything was aligned with our efforts.”
On May 24, the board held a meeting and voted unanimously to change the mascot from the Chiefs or Chieftains into something else. When voting on this, they had to make sure that it aligned with their equity plan and strategic plans – plans that they have had since before the pandemic. Bolton has said that both of these plans heavily address diversity and equity inclusion issues.
This has been a topic of discussion for more than 30 years, Bolton said. It first started in 1989 when a committee examined the use of the logo and the terms Chief and Chieftain, but no action was taken. It wasn’t until 2012 where the first change occurred.
“That’s when they completely removed the images and we standardized our logo at that time,” said Bolton. “But we still used the nickname or Chiefs.”
Okemos is the latest in a long line of schools changing their mascots across the country. The most recent change before Okemos was Susquehanna Township High School in Pennsylvania, whose school board voted to retire their Indians mascot on May 5, 2021. In Michigan, the Saugatuck Public Schools Board of Education, on Feb. 22, 2021, approved a mascot change from the Indians to the Trailblazers.
The use of Native American mascots, symbols and images by schools, athletic teams and organizations perpetuate harmful stereotypes and inaccurate racial portrayals, which end up hurting Native American people.
During the months-long process of changing the mascot, where the board worked with Native American leaders, Bolton said many people were in support of changing the nickname. One was a 2020 OHS graduate, Mady Grant, who said she noticed many students and people her age also support it.
“From what I’ve gathered many students don’t want to offend anyone with our name,” said Grant. “I thought it was good that we stopped using the chieftain’s name and chieftain’s head as our logo and just switched to the Chiefs and Okemos ‘O’ logo.”
While there are many people who support this change, there were some who spoke out against it during the process. Grant points out that money could be a reason for the disagreement, but Bolton said he believes that it has mostly to do with heritage.
“I definitely don’t speak for everyone when I say this but some think it’s a waste of money since the current rebranding process and finding a new mascot and potentially colors and then changing all of the sports jerseys is a lot of money that could be spent on other things,” Grant pointed out. “Overall, I think that it’s better to put all of that money towards something else that benefits the students and staff but it’s also important that we respect everyone’s opinions.”
“It was heritage,” Bolton said. “Some of them don’t understand how the use of chiefs in the way we use it could be offensive to Native Americans. In terms of the alumni we talked to, they were chiefs, so it felt like taking something away from them, but we have laid out very solid reasons why we’re making this change.”
While Bolton said he understands some people will never agree with this change, he said he hopes that they can come to understand why this was an important change to make.
In terms of a new mascot, there won’t be a decision for a while. This is a change that will end up costing the district over $400,000. Bolton explained the decision will be a collaborative community-wide project involving students, community members and alumni, where their goal is to have a complete change in two years.