It was in November of last year that 16-year-old Cielo Garcia, Sicangu Lakota, started a petition to change her high school mascot.
But within hours, she was subjected to dozens of tweets, Facebook messages, texts, and emails bullying and taunting her for simply being Native American.
Norte Vista High School [or “Novi”] in Riverside, California, about two hours east of Los Angeles, is the “home of the Norte Vista Braves.” Their coat of arms features a red and black shield topped with the likeness of a Native American man wearing braids and a red headband.
The mascot has gone unchallenged until now.
“The actual mascot costume is ridiculous and the students show ‘school spirit’ in a very mocking way without even realizing it,” Garcia said. Her petition is currently at more than 1,500 signatures.
Garcia posted “a few of the more calm” messages of objection she had received via social media – a collection of 26 screenshots – to her Facebook page.
“Students have became very hostile in nature,” Garcia said in her post. “[They] have starting making their own assumptions, without the full story in some cases, and in other [cases] they let their ego and school pride overtake their perception.”
Many of the messages tell Garcia to go to a different school, accuse her of being “more Mexican than Native” and “just wanting attention.” Some say she needs to “just suck it up” while others call her a “bitch,” “dog” or a “hoe.”
The bullying and taunting was not solely the work of Garcia’s peers, however.
“I have been getting a lot of backlash and hate from not only almost all 2,200 students, but from staff and faculty as well,” Garcia posted on Facebook.
In an email, she said, “At school, I’ve had faculty and staff treat me different or give me mean looks.”
Similarly, Garcia said that teachers would ask her opinion on the matter and, when she was honest with them, faculty and staff would tell her things such as “Nothing is ever going to change, though. It’s tradition and it’d cost too much money.”
Three days after Garcia’s petition began to circulate, Garcia did a “culture exchange” lunch at Norte Vista with Marcus Frejo, also known as musical artist Quese IMC. The exchange’s purpose was to “bring the Native presence to campus and expose students to contemporary Native culture,” Garcia said.
Frejo sang while Garcia danced fancy shawl; then they both gave a talk explaining regalia and addressing common stereotypes.
“In no way did the culture exchange have any direct connection to my mascot initiative. They just happened to be a few days apart from each other,” Garcia said.
Nonetheless, administration allegedly considered the culture exchange as a form of protesting, Garcia said.
“They told me it was okay if I wanted to go out there and do my little dances and sing, but it was implied that if I continued to ‘protest’ my presentation would be shut down,” Garcia said. She insisted that she was simply trying to raise awareness to Native American issues and educate her community on her culture.
Garcia then took the issue to the Alvord Unified School District Board of Education on November 19 during a regularly scheduled meeting.
Garcia and those opposing her were given 20 minutes total to present their arguments. “They called up more people to speak from the opposing side than my side,” she said.
“When I first started to talk, I introduced myself in Lakota and I immediately noticed that I lost half of the board members’ attention, and a few specifically made it obvious that they weren’t listening to me and even rolled their eyes more than once,” Garcia said of the meeting.
“During the board meeting, there was a faculty member from school who spoke against me and she even went through my Facebook to a post I made back in October. She flipped my words and made it sound like I was a racist and disrespected Mexicans. Which is ironic because I’m half-Mexican myself,” Garcia said. Garcia was referencing a Facebook post with a meme focusing on not being able to speak fluent Spanish.
“It’s okay for the school to care about Hispanic issues and have a club for undocumented students, or a African-American student union, or even a LGBT human rights club, but when it comes down to Native American human rights, my human rights, of being able to express how this affects me personally and Native people on a bigger scale, they are quick to shut me down and try to silence my voice,” Garcia said in a Facebook post in November promoting her petition.
According to the minutes, the board requested “that an item be agendized for discussion related to the Norte Vista High School mascot after the winter break,” which ended January 4.
There were six individuals present to support the Braves mascot, and four, including Garcia herself, who spoke on cultural competency.
Two others supported Garcia at the meeting, Mike Gomezmacias and Kristi Orona-Ramirez, both teachers at Wells Middle School, where Garcia’s interest in mascot activism began.
“I attended a middle school whose mascot was also a Native person, the Warriors, and my eighth grade year the school announced that it was 2012 and it was time for a change. The school [is] now the Home of the Phoenix,” Garcia said. Wells Middle School is also in Riverside, California.
“Being part of the Not Your Mascot campaign against the Redskins football team, I’ve really been educated in the ways that this affects Native youth on a psychological level,” Garcia said about her initial inspiration. “Through experience and hearing others’ stories, I’ve noticed how this form of institutionalized racism makes it hard for Native communities to strive for better things when we aren’t even seen as people.”
Her high school, however, is a different story. Garcia said that lot of people at Norte Vista knew she was part of the reason Wells Middle School changed their mascot in 2012, but she was worried about not fitting in because the Braves mascot was such a strong tradition for the high school.
“I’d say things like ‘I don’t have a problem with it’ just so people wouldn’t get mad at me or think I was lame,” she said. “It’s always easier to go with the crowd than against it. So I was going with it.”
Things changed for Garcia when she came across the ADIDAS campaign offering money to schools to help mascots, specifically offensive to Native Americans.
“High school social identities are central to the lives of young athletes, so it’s important to create a climate that feels open to everyone who wants to compete,” said Mark King, president of Adidas Group North America. “But the issue is much bigger. These social identities affect the whole student body and, really, entire communities. In many cities across our nation, the high school and its sports teams take center stage in the community and the mascot and team names become an everyday rallying cry.”
“One thing that has always stopped me in the past was money, and since ADIDAS said that they would help financially any school get rid of their Native mascots, I figured it was ‘go-time’ and I started my petition,” Garcia said.
Months after she launched the petition to repeal Norte Vista High School’s mascot, Garcia says she is still encountering a lot of pushback.
“I still have people messaging me about it or making posts saying that what I am doing is ‘utterly disgusting.’ I can honestly be anywhere, picking my little sister up from school or at the store and have people make remarks about it, or call me names,” Garcia said.
Garcia said the harassment doesn’t bother her very much, and that she’s focusing on the next hurtle – the promised “agendized item” from the Board of Education to discuss the future of Norte Vista’s mascot.
“I’m just doing more research and collecting all the reports and links I’ve come across or had people send me, so I can create an email and send to all the district board members to read up on and become educated, as well as including statements from Native youth,” Garcia said.
With 2,176 students in four grades, according to the most recent demographics posted on their website from 2013-2014, 88-percent of the Norte Vista student body consists of “Hispanic of Latino” – identifying students, with Caucasian making up 6-percent, Asian and African-American making up nearly 2-percent each.
Multi-racial, Filipino and American Indian or Alaskan Native make-up roughly 1-percent combined.
Since she began her campaign, Garcia said she has received “a few more” statements of support from students and is “constantly getting support from people outside of school.”
Members of the Norte Vista High School School Board could not be reached for comment.