During the summer, Port Townsend High School is a ghost town. The grass grows vigorously, weeds sprout from the cracks of the sidewalks and one would be hard pressed to find an open door on the small campus.
But judging by the black cement couch that rests behind the main building, a few have been here this summer. According to Port Townsend tradition, classes spray-paint the couch. The class of 2016 has been the most recent to tag the structure.
Their message resonates with a majority of the student body and a generous portion of the Port Townsend community.
“Long live Redskins,” the writing on the couch reads. A Redskins logo appears on the front. The words “always” and “forever” are painted on either side.
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Nearly two weeks have passed since the Port Townsend School Board voted unanimously to abolish the “Redskins” mascot, putting an 87-year-old tradition to rest. Decades of controversy culminated at the June 24 school board meeting, where all five board members voted in favor of removing the mascot, stirring mixed emotions from the near 275 people in attendance. Many of those in favor of retaining the mascot stormed out of the high school auditorium immediately following the vote. Others stayed and verbally lashed out at board members.
Emotions won’t settle anytime soon in the small maritime community, where the name is loved by many with ties to the school but viewed as offensive by others, including Native American tribes in the area. But second-year superintendent David Engle said he hopes three decades of divisiveness will subside as the high school moves forward.
“The past 30 years this issue has … been very divisive and fractious,” Engle said. “The board made a kind of measured, deliberate decision to move into the future and put this kind of episodic controversy behind it.”
The school board has given Engle one year to unveil a new mascot. In the coming weeks he plans to put together the selection process for the new mascot, while coming up with another plan to deal with retiring the Redskins mascot.
Engle will incorporate students and community members into the selection process.
“The students will be definitely involved,” he said. “The students need to be very involved in the process, but this goes beyond their tenure here, so it’s a community decision. Hopefully, the next mascot’s here almost 100 years.”
Forever a Redskin
More than a few Port Townsend students resent Engle’s decision not to hold a student vote despite the superintendent’s expressed interest in including them in the upcoming selection process.
“Well, clearly we wanted to keep the name, so they’ve pretty much removed us from voting so they could get rid of the name,” said Cody Carpenter, a junior to-be. “It kind of impacts us just as much. It’s our school, it’s our sweatshirts, it’s our team, it’s our players.
“I think it would be great, though, if we voted to rename ourselves the Redskins.”
Other PTHS students echo those sentiments.
“They (students) definitely should’ve been involved. I mean, they’re the ones graduating from the school with that name,” said another junior, Derek Conover, a third-generation Redskin.
Three times in the past 30 years, students were left to decide the fate of the Redskins mascot and three times they indicated how special the tradition was by voting to keep the mascot.
“It was considered to be kind of disruptive and very difficult for a lot of students,” said Pam Daly, a Port Townsend School District Board member. “A lot of pressure and distraction, and I think that part of it was to gather information and to kind of look at it from all kinds of points of view.”
It might be a few years before students, alumni and community members will come to peace with the decision and praise the new mascot. Students have already started selling T-shirts inscribed with “Forever a Redskin.”
And for the time being, it’s unlikely that Redskins apparel will be collecting dust in the back of Port Townsend closets.
We’re not a mascot
On Wednesday, a colleague popped into Ron Allen’s office and referred to the head of the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe as “chief.”
It isn’t a term that Allen likes thrown around on a daily basis — in fact, he prefers not to use it at all — but in this instance he doesn’t mind.
“He calls me chief because I’m the CEO,” Allen said, laughing. “And he’s an Indian.”
On any other day and in any other context, however, the term is as offensive as “Redskin“ to Allen, who has been the Jamestown S’Klallam CEO since 1983.
The tribe, located 25 miles southwest of Port Townsend in neighboring Sequim, has taken a stance against the usage of Indian team names and mascots, particularly Redskins as it pertains to Port Townsend High School. The Suquamish Tribe and Skokomish Tribal Nation have done the same.
Gideon Cauffman, the cultural resources specialist of the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe, represented the tribe at the June 24 school board meeting and was part of the nine-person committee initially formed to study the use of the mascot.
“The Washington State Board of Education really made this push, and that’s something that hasn’t really been mentioned at all,” said Cauffman, referring to a 2012 state board resolution recommending the discontinuation of offensive school nicknames. “There’s this state entity that’s saying, ‘You guys need to stop having these names.’ The next step will probably be a mandate.”
Since 1990, 28 schools have transitioned to other mascots after using “Redskins,” according to a Capital News Service study in 2012. Since the study was conducted, Teton High School in Driggs, Idaho and Port Townsend have followed.
“As you turn a mascot or a logo into the identity of an ethnic group, you cross the threshold,” Allen said.
Those in support of retaining the Redskins mascot believe it to be an honor bestowed upon the local tribes.
Allen doesn’t agree.
“Ethnic groups don’t want you to honor them by making them a mascot,” he said. “You could get all kinds of things that would get outraged, if they were the Port Townsend Italians, the Italians would go ballistic.”
Engle arrived in Port Townsend a little more than a year ago. Three days into the job, he was informed of the issue that has divided the town for decades.
The superintendent strays from utilizing the term “political correctness.”
“You can also position this as a morally correct decision, you can position it around sensitivity to our community,” Engle said. “People throw that politically correct thing out like it’s some kind of argument but I think it’s way more complex than that.”
Engle and the school district are hoping students, alumni and community members build ownership around the new mascot.
“Again, the goal is to find something that will help unify the community and provide the kind of aspect that sports teams like to have,” Engle said. “Ferocious, you know.”
But Engle knows as well as anyone that 80-plus years of Redskins tradition won’t die any time soon.
Theo Lawson: firstname.lastname@example.org.