Parents Talk Back by Aisha Sultan

Fighting to Change a Hurtful, Racist Mascot

Kendra Haag’s family on the reservation couldn’t bear to watch her play soccer -- or any of her other sports -- in high school.

She was a solid player, but the uniform she wore at every school event was emblazoned with a racial slur too painful and humiliating to bear: “Savage.” The image of the school mascot depicted a Native American.

Haag, now 29, is a member of the Kickapoo tribe. Her father was a member of the tribal council; her grandfather, a war chief. Her parents moved from a border town near the Kansas reservation to Savannah, Missouri, a town of about 5,000 people, when she was a young child. From second grade until she graduated, Haag bore the shame of that word and image on her uniforms and school T-shirts.

In the rural town, where life centers around the high school, the word was everywhere. In the ‘90s, the city council voted to paint “Savannah Savages” and the mascot on the town’s water tower.

“I remember obviously not feeling good about it. Wishing it would change, but not having the power to do so at that young age,” Haag said.

A few years after her youngest brother graduated from high school, she joined a movement to rid the district of its mascot. Recently, Haag, now living in Arizona, helped to circulate an online petition to urge the school board to remove the slur. But at a time when professional sports teams with Native American names and mascots are seriously considering removing them from their branding, Savannah is still fighting to keep its “Savage” pride.

In the town, which is about 98% white, generations have attended the same high school. Many participate in homecoming events each fall, years after graduating. Even knowing all this, the severity of the backlash has stunned Haag.

She’s been threatened and called obscenities. A counter-petition to keep the mascot now has more than 2,100 signatures, compared with more than 3,500 signatures on the petition for change. The local paper ran a front-page headline declaring, “We are all Savages” on a recent graduation story.

The mayor refused to answer a reporter’s question, and did not return calls to comment.

Haag remembers her teammates singing a refrain from a song in the 1995 Disney version of “Pocahontas”: “Savages, savages, barely even human.”

She would storm out of the locker room when she heard it. “Everyone knew I was Native,” she said.

She remembers pep rallies where students would make tepees and wear fake feathers and war paint, with no idea of how disrespectful it was to her culture and identity.

Some Savannah grads struggle to reconcile Haag’s hurt with their own hometown pride.

“I’ve worn that Savage on my body for probably 10 years,” said graduate Jason Harris, who now lives in Kirkwood, Missouri. “They call it Savage Pride. They don’t look at it like they are offending anyone.” He said changing the mascot is really about changing the identity of the town: “All they have ever known is being a Savage.”

To an outsider, keeping such an obvious slur in this day and age seems preposterous.

“’Savages’? In 2020?” said Tyrone Terrill, secretary of the National Coalition Against Racism in Sports and Media, who wrote a letter to the school board in support of change. The board will discuss the issue at a July 14 meeting.

“Their name, ‘Savages,’ is more racist than the name ‘Redskins,’” he said. He suggested the school board president could keep the name as long as she replaced the Native person mascot with her own image.

There are signs that attitudes are changing, especially among the younger generations and those who have moved away. David Kozminski, a self-described proud graduate and valedictorian of the school, left a comment under the petition for change: “To this day, I regret that I didn’t speak up more when I had the chance.”

He’s about to become a father for the first time, and decided he cannot stay silent.

“I decided that for me to be able to look (my son) in the eye and encourage him to stand up for the right thing -- to stand up for vulnerable people even when it’s not easy -- that I have to start doing the right thing myself,” he said.

Haag said a few of her former classmates have reached out to her to apologize if they had made ignorant or racist comments to her growing up. Other supporters have said they are willing to donate money to help the school pay for changing its signage.

Haag’s father and other tribal leaders plan to attend the upcoming school board meeting to advocate for the long overdue change.

It remains to be seen if the town is ready to listen.