LA CONNER — The Swinomish Indian Tribal Community and the La Conner School District have a long shared history, with generations of students from both sides of the Swinomish Channel having graduated from high school as La Conner Braves.
But a bill passed by the state Legislature in April has the tribe and school district evaluating whether to continue with the Braves mascot.
“We need La Conner School District, and the La Conner School District understands they need the Swinomish tribe,” said School Board member and tribal Sen. Jeremy “J.J.” Wilbur. “With that understanding, it’s: how do we move forward together?”
House Bill 1356, which was signed into law by Gov. Jay Inslee, bans the use of Native American names, symbols or images by public schools.
According to The Seattle Times, 35 of the state’s 420 high schools that are members of the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association have Native American mascots, logos or team names.
The law includes an exception for school districts such as La Conner, whose enrollment boundaries include what the law calls Indian Country. Those districts must get approval from their local tribes to continue use of Native American mascots, logos or names.
“At the end of the day, it’s about bringing communities together,” said state Rep. Debra Lekanoff, D-Bow, the state’s only Native American legislator, who sponsored the bill. “Honoring one another and learning about one another in the places we all call home.”
According to historical articles found in archived editions of the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community’s qyuuqs magazine, in the 1880s the federal Office of Indian Affairs began to push tribal children, including those from the Swinomish reservation, into boarding schools such as the Tulalip Boarding School.
Worried about their children being away from their families and with such schools often facing outbreaks of disease and extended closures, Swinomish parents objected to the practice and pushed the federal government to allow them to open their own school.
The petition was granted, and in 1898 the Swinomish Day School opened.
For the next two decades, the school served students through the third grade — though often sporadically, as dedicated teachers were sometimes difficult to find.
By 1916, however, more and more Swinomish children began attending school in the La Conner School District, and by 1918 the Swinomish Day School closed.
“We take a lot of pride in the education we received from the La Conner School District,” said Wilbur, a third-generation La Conner High School graduate who has children in the district.
Though it may not be felt as strongly in La Conner, in many marginalized communities throughout the country scars left by historical traumas remain, Lekanoff said.
In many cases, the symbols and ideals tribal children learned to exalt in their communities were used in schoolhouses to mock and demean them, she said.
“It’s not that long ago, you were still being treated as if you didn’t matter and you were nothing,” Lekanoff said of the Native American experience. “You were the first American that we, America, wanted to kill.”
Today, about 34% of students enrolled in the school district are Native American, according to the state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction.
Students, both tribal and not, have the opportunity to take part in carving and drumming classes, and to learn the tribe’s Lushootseed language. Cedar hats and eagle feathers are commonplace at graduation, and without prompting, students freely participate in Swinomish cultural traditions, such as the blessing of a totem pole.
The district’s motto is: “Be brave.”
The relationship between tribe and district is one that, despite some struggles, both have worked to strengthen, Lekanoff said.
“There’s a beautiful relationship I believe Swinomish and La Conner really protected, and that is the relationship between (their) children,” said Lekanoff. “They always put them first.”
In a first for the district, two of the five School Board members are Swinomish tribal members, Wilbur said.
The district’s incoming superintendent, Will Nelson, who starts July 1, is also Native American, Wilbur said.
“It puts La Conner in a very unique situation to have someone who understands what being Native is about in the top spot at La Conner,” Wilbur said. “That will add to relationship building between the tribe and the school district.”
Lekanoff said the new law encourages school districts and their local tribes to talk about how to best honor their history, rather than assuming what is and isn’t acceptable.
“If you’re going to honor us, let’s honor us together,” she said. “Those are the types of outcomes that we’re looking at when you become neighbors that respect each other and love one another.”
Growing up, Wilbur said, he and his friends were not bothered by the school district’s use of the name Braves.
“We took a little bit of pride in being home of the Braves,” he said. “It was brave as a warrior. It was kind of a rally cry for us.”
That was then, he said. And this is now.
“If it hurts some of today’s kids, we need to address that,” Wilbur said. “If it hurts any kids, we need to understand why and see if we can help heal that.”
He said the tribe and the district will hold discussions about what is and is not offensive, and will work together to make any necessary changes.
By January, the tribe will have to decide if it is OK for the school district to continue to use the name.
Lekanoff said the new law is not meant to be punitive.
Instead, it offers funding for districts to hire consultants to work with them and their closest tribes to rebrand themselves should they need to, she said.
“We’re never harming the school budget,” Lekanoff said. “We made every option out there available.”
More important than any punishment or shame, she said, is the opportunity to grow and to set an example for the next generation.
“These young kids coming out of La Conner schools are going to be the next generation of Skagitonians,” she said. “They’ll be the next decision makers at the table. This little bill is helping generations.”