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A group of McClymonds High School students have waded into a cultural controversy in trying to change their school’s 106-year-old mascot, the warrior. In wanting to remove the Native American mascot from the school’s walls, the group faces an intransigent alumni group who see the move as threatening the McClymonds High School legacy.
In a rapidly gentrifying city, alumni also fear the change could be a harbinger of unwelcome instability to come. While the storied, historically Black school is home to championship-winning sports teams and barrier-breaking alumni, it has struggled with declining enrollment, especially compared with the other comprehensive high schools in Oakland. Fewer than 400 students were enrolled during the 2019-2020 school year, and a decreasing number of students in West Oakland are opting for the school, according to district data. In recent years the school has also been the site of lead-contaminated water and chemical leaks, forcing the campus to temporarily close last year.
Students in the Social Justice Liberation Coalition, a club formed at the beginning of the school year, started a petition in November to change the mascot. Since then, it has garnered nearly 18,000 signatures. Sidney Tchanyoum, one of the club’s founders, said her friends had discussed their concerns about the icon used to depict the mascot for a while before they decided to take action.
The icon, of a Native American man in silhouette wearing a feather in his hair, appears on the floor of the school’s gym and on one of the gym’s walls. On the opposite wall, a dream catcher takes the place of the letter “o” in the phrase “Mack House,” which students and alumni use to refer to their alma mater. The Native American image also sometimes shows up on celebratory t-shirts or jackets.
“It perpetuates a stereotype. Native American and Indigenous people in this country have been ridiculed as savages and barbarians,” said Tchanyoum, a senior at McClymonds. “Mascots are typically caricatures or animals, and it gives the connotation that Native Americans are caricatures or animals, which further perpetuates the barbarian stereotype.”
Native American advocacy groups mostly agree. Angel Heart has worked with the Vallejo-based organization Sacred Sites Protection and Rights of Indigenous Tribes (SSPRIT) for several years to remove Native American mascots from public schools, including at Vallejo High School in 2013 and Napa High School in 2018.
“Our image is used as a stereotype and it keeps us as a people of the past. It doesn’t educate or talk about with young people our modern, contemporary relevance,” said Heart, who is part of the Quechua-Puna people. “What they do learn about Native Americans comes from mascot use, and creates even more stereotypes in the minds of non-Indigenous people.”
At McClymonds, the mascot doesn’t appear on sports uniforms, or official school documents, which Tchanyoum thought would make it simpler to accomplish the change. But soon after the student petition began circulating, a counter-petition initiated by McClymonds alumni started racking up signatures.
Keeping the warrior spirit
Some in the McClymonds community, which has an active and large alumni contingent, feel the mascot represents the resilience of graduates and is an appropriate icon for a school that remains a pillar in the West Oakland community, educating generation after generation of Black families. It became a melting pot for families from different neighborhoods in West Oakland, who attended half a dozen different elementary and middle schools in the area.
“All roads ended at McClymonds,” said Ron Muhammad, whose family has been in West Oakland since the 1940s.
“The name of McClymonds Warriors has a deep, deep meaning to us because it’s all about resiliency. We have leaders in every field of endeavor,” he said, going on to list some of the school’s standout alumni, like James Harris, a chemist who helped discover two new elements; Stanley Kirk Burrell, who is better known as MC Hammer, the Grammy Award-winning rapper; and Bill Russell, a basketball star who won 11 NBA championships and became the first Black coach in the NBA. Russell in the 1950s also served as the school’s mascot and was photographed wearing a Native American headdress, and holding a tomahawk and drum.
Muhammad, who sits on the school’s alumni board, said that the mascot is inoffensive because it represents heroism and McClymonds students’ success over the adversity they face. It’s not comparable to other mascots that use Native Americans, like the Washington Football Team’s former name, because it isn’t a slur, he said.
“That’s a stereotypical, degrading term,” Muhammad said about the NFL team. “A warrior is not a slang term. Warrior doesn’t belong to anybody.”
Michael Peters, who coaches the school’s football team, agreed. The Warriors most recently lost the state football championship in 2019, but brought home the trophy the previous three years.
“We’re a tribe. It can be any kind of tribe. We’re honoring warriors here,” said Peters, who graduated from McClymonds in 1986.
But using the image of a Native American to represent the warrior links that group of people with violence and is exactly the problem, Heart said. Team mascots are generally meant to be derided by opposing teams and that derision ends up degrading a real group of people, she added. Newspaper articles referred to the team as the McClymonds Indians up until the 1950s, when writers began using Warriors instead.
Heart pointed to the Golden State Warriors as an example of change that schools and other teams can model themselves after. When they were first established as the Philadelphia Warriors, the team used an image of a Native American man bouncing a ball as its logo. After moving to San Francisco in 1962, the logo dropped the caricature but used a Native American headdress. In 1969, the Native American imagery was dropped entirely in favor of the Golden Gate Bridge. The logo continued to evolve over time to the easily recognizable blue and gold silhouette of the Bay Bridge the team uses today.
McClymonds alumni point to the murals at the school’s entrance, which depict warriors of specific African tribes, like the Masai, Xhosa, and Zulu, to make the point that a warrior can be of any culture. The outside wall of the gym also displays a range of warriors from different cultures, and includes the traditional mascot, an orange Native American head in silhouette.
Critics contend that part of the reason the Native American mascot is disrespectful is because of its nonspecificity, and that its use is divorced from any education or cultural teachings about Indigenous culture. Unlike the depictions of African warriors, the Native American icon is a generic one that doesn’t refer to a specific tribe.
“The school, and most of the East Bay, sits on Native American land and us having this mascot and knowing nothing about them, I find pretty weird,” Tchanyoum said. “We’ve already taken their land, now we’re taking their likeness and putting it up for people to see.”
At Wednesday’s school board meeting, the first of the year, school board director VanCedric Williams, who represents District 3 where McClymonds is located, brought forward a resolution to acknowledge that the school district sits on land that belongs to the Muwekma Ohlone people. The resolution calls for developing a task force that includes Native students and staff to develop a land acknowledgement policy, as well as scholarships for Native students, or contributions to the local tribe.
“I think this is a good first step to acknowledge the people who’ve been here the longest and let them know that we see you, we will support you,” Williams said during the meeting. He didn’t mention the controversy brewing in his own district. Since the resolution was a new legislative item, there was no board discussion or public comment on it.
In an email to The Oaklandside, Williams suggested that the groups on opposing sides of the McClymonds debate meet with the local Ohlone Tribal Council to discuss the mascot.
Some in the McClymonds community also claim that since the school educates mostly Black students in a Black enclave, that they have a different relationship with the history of marginalized Indigenous groups than if the issue were to come up at a mostly white school.
Heart, though, echoed Williams’ suggestion, and emphasized the importance of people of color listening to each other.
“African-Americans should be able to look to Indigenous people and say, ‘how do you feel about this, and how can we find a way to honor you even if it means removing this mascot?”
Shauntiara Williams, another member of the Social Justice Liberation Coalition and a third-generation McClymonds student, said students are currently trying to reach local Indigenous groups to speak to their club and the alumni.
“As a whole, McClymonds doesn’t represent Native American culture and it’s kind of wrong for us to have a Native American head as a mascot,” Williams said.
Creating a new legacy
Like the Golden State Warriors, the students in the Social Justice Liberation Coalition just want to change the icon, not the name. Their suggestions include using an inanimate object, like a shield, or crossing swords or axes, or the letter “M” that the school already largely uses as a logo.
The club met with alumni in November to discuss their petition, but were faced with resistance. After talking with their principal, they’re planning to meet again this month with hopes of coming up with a solution they can propose to the school board.
But for some, replacing a person with an object would tarnish the legacy of the Warriors. For them, the image represents the personification of the struggles that the school and the student body have overcome, along with their triumphs.
“We’ve had to move campuses. We’ve had students shot. We also have three state championships,” said Shelly-Marie Currington, a senior who was visiting the campus this week to record a video tour for incoming freshmen. “I would feel wrong if I graduated and came back and that warrior wasn’t there,” she said, pointing to the images on the exterior gym wall.
Ben Tapscott, the school’s retired basketball coach who is well known in Oakland and ran unsuccessfully for school board last year, appreciates that the students have found an issue they’re passionate about, but he suggested they spend their time on what he feels are more dire issues at the school. Tapscott is a leader of the New McClymonds committee, a group that has been outspoken about the problems facing the campus, like the carcinogen found in the groundwater last year.
As West Oakland gentrifies and the neighborhoods around the school change, alumni fear that students will become disconnected from the legacy of the school. Muhammad also mentioned the annual alumni picnic, which usually happens at the end of September each year, but had to be canceled last year because of the pandemic. Because of that, students lost out on an opportunity to connect with graduates, some of whom went to the school as far back as the 1940s.
Devin Keppard-Tongue, a senior who is one of the students advocating for the change, recognizes the long-standing McClymonds legacy, but thinks this could be an opportunity to make a positive change for the school.
“I don’t understand why we can’t have our own legacy that represents who we are now. If we can all work together to get it done, it can be something even better.”