“Get off the stage, squaw!”
Bella Cornell, a 14-year old girl from the Choctaw Nation, heard these words as she finished her testimony against the name and mascot of the McLoud High School Redskins during a school board meeting last month.
In the packed audience, her mother was distraught watching her daughter. “It was horrible to see,” said Sarah Adams-Cornell. “It takes so much for one of our kids speak up. I wanted to take her out of there and protect her. She’s my child.”
A few weeks prior, Woodrow Wilson, McLoud High’s Indian Education director, had reached out to Adams-Cornell hoping she would be willing to testify to the school’s board about Native mascots. Several local Native American families had privately voiced their concerns to him, with one family stating they no longer participated in school events because of references to ‘dumb, subhuman Redskins.’
A vote on the mascot had been scheduled in a meeting open to the public, but the concerned local Native families didn’t want to testify, fearing backlash and bullying against their children. “The Board wouldn’t allow anonymous comments, you had to actually be present at the meeting to speak out,” said Adams-Cornell.
Upon Wilson’s invitation, Adams-Cornell made the trip from Oklahoma City to the small town of McLoud, Oklahoma. Her daughter, Bella, refused to be left out.
“My mom raised me traditionally, I know how to treat sacred items, how to treat regalia. To see it used as a plaything is wrong. People aren’t mascots,” she said.
Cornell is no stranger to experiencing hostility and ignorance about Native Americans. When she was in 8thgrade, a history teacher gave an account of America’s first peoples that left her stunned and in tears. “He called us vicious vermin and said we were cannibals,” she said. “Other kids came up to me after and asked if I ate people.”
“She came out to the car in tears,” Adams-Cornell said. “I spoke with the principal and then with the teacher. He stood by what he taught, the principal said the school would ‘keep an eye on it.’”
At the McLoud School Board meeting, audience members heard defenders of the name state it was an honor and it was tradition. One man was particularly vocal in his defense of Native mascots, at times shouting at Native Americans speaking against mascots – he was a founder of the Native American Guardians Association, a group of Native Americans and allies that claims to preserve the positive imagery of Native mascots.
The board vote was unanimous – in a 3-0 vote, McLoud High School would remain the Redskins.
Adams-Cornell has kept in touch with the local Native families who wished to remain anonymous; they’ve now filed a complaint with the Department of Justice.
While the 23-year long legal battle between Native Americans and the NFL’s Washington Redskins rages on, several public schools that share the moniker have dropped the name. Backlash against change has been widespread, with some alumni going so far as to run for school board positions vowing to bring back the name.
“It’s strange to see someone who feels so entitled to give their perspective on something that doesn’t negatively affect them or their children,” said Adams-Cornell. “I saw one woman [at McLoud] say that giving her testimony supporting the name was the hardest thing she’d ever had to do. She’s up there crying, when this actually hurts Native children.”
Though she understands her mother’s concerns after the meeting in McLoud, Cornell says she will continue to fight. The Choctaw teen hosts “Indigenous Aiukli,” a radio show dedicated to Native American youth advocacy. ‘Aiukli’ is Cornell’s middle name, meaning ‘beautiful’ in Choctaw.
“If we give up, it tells them that they won,” said Cornell. “What happened to me is what happens when you allow racism.”
Tara Houska (Couchiching First Nation) is a tribal rights attorney in Washington, D.C., a founding member of NotYourMascots.org, and an all-around rabble rouser. Follow her: @zhaabowekwe.