Rogue River not ready yet to drop team name

ROGUE RIVER — The Rogue River School District isn't in any hurry to change its high school's team name in the wake of a state board's ruling upholding a ban on American Indian mascots, Superintendent Paul Young said Wednesday.

The Oregon Board of Education ruled last week that 14 public schools in the state whose athletic teams have Indian names must change those names by 2017. But that ruling conflicts with a bill previously approved by the Legislature, so educators say its effect remains in doubt.

The board first considered banning Indian mascots and team names in 2006 after a presentation from a high school student and adopted a non-binding resolution recommending schools to discontinue their use. The board passed a blanket ban on their use in 2012 over the objections of a number of mostly rural high schools. 

Board members last week unanimously rejected a proposed amendment that would have allowed some schools to continue to use Indian names for athletic teams and other student organizations. Department of Education spokeswoman Crystal Greene said board members felt the action they took in 2012 was an important one on a civil rights issue and that this move was in the best interest of students.

The board's recent ruling is in conflict with a 2014 bill that allowed schools to retain Indian names and mascots with the permission of local tribal leaders. Rogue River High School, whose athletic teams are called the Chieftains, was among the schools that sought to retain their team names under last year's legislation.

Young said that whether the education board has the power to override state law is still in question. He said the school is waiting until after the current legislative session ends in July to see whether the Legislature intervenes in any way.

Young said the school has a "pretty good relationship" with local Indian tribes and pointed to late school board member Jim Martin, a grandson of Nez Perce leader Chief Joseph, in whose name the school's gymnasium was dedicated last year.

Rogue River High School has used the Chieftains name since the 1970s, when a student in traditional Native American dress performed dances during football games. The school later stopped using the image of a Indian as a mascot.

"Our mascot is a spear and has been for a long, long time," Young said. The superintendent said the move away from using the mascot occurred long before the state board ruled on the issues.

"If it comes down to weighing out whether you've been good and respectful or not, I kinda think we're going to come out on the good end of the scale," he said.

Reach reporter Thomas Moriarty at 541-776-4471, or by email at tmoriarty@mailtribune.com. Follow him at @ThomasDMoriarty.

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