A Cottage Grove high school is removing an American Indian emblem from its floor after concerns about the image’s cultural insensitivity.
Park High School’s mascot was the Park Indians until 1994 when the east metro school changed it, stripping the Indians logo from uniforms, scoreboards and signs.
But somehow, the emblem on a terrazzo floor stayed.
“Knowing the research, knowing the negative impact this symbol has on some of our students at Park High School and knowing the decision to remove this mascot was already made more than 20 years ago, the emblem should never have remained,” South Washington County School Superintendent Keith Jacobus said when he announced the decision last week.
The controversy follows mounting pressure for U.S. schools and sports teams to drop Indian nicknames in recent years.
After public pressure, the University of North Dakota dropped its Fighting Sioux nickname and in 2015 became the Fighting Hawks. And earlier this year, the Cleveland Indians said they will stop using the Chief Wahoo logo on their uniforms in 2019.
In Minnesota, a few rural schools such as Warroad and Sleepy Eye still have Indian logos that are connected to the community’s history.
But in Cottage Grove, the district’s American Indian parent committee said the emblem doesn’t have that kind of significance.
“This image has no place in a public school where children learn,” Janice Erickson told school board members last month, adding that 350 kids in the district identify as American Indians. “While people think they are honoring our indigenous people and culture, there is overwhelming evidence that these caricatures and stereotypes actually damage our indigenous students, families and community.”
When the school was built in 1965, the emblem of an Indian head wearing a headdress was added to the terrazzo floor near the then-entrance. For years, students followed a tradition not to step on the emblem as a sign of respect.
In 1988, a state resolution deemed using mascots, emblems or symbols depicting American Indian culture unacceptable. And by 1993, senior Alan Eleria joined a committee at the school to come up with a new mascot, settling on the image of several wolves to symbolize group unity (and tap the popularity of Minnesota’s then-relatively new professional basketball team).
“It was unique; no one had ever used it in the state of Minnesota,” said Eleria, now 43, who was part of the last class to graduate with the original mascot.
Changing the mascot was a controversial decision, he said, because of the mascot’s long history, but students and the school embraced the new one — the wolfpack. Now, 25 years later, students started bringing up concerns about the image on the floor — a visible relic each day to the 1,800 students who pass by the school’s gym.
The school district said the emblem will be removed, though no timeline has been set for the work to remove it, and will be replaced with something else. Erickson recommended the emblem be removed by an American Indian contractor and then preserved off-site, to be used as a teaching aid to discuss eliminating racism in schools.
A school district spokeswoman said the removal is estimated to cost about $3,000 and the school district has tried to work on equity issues such as starting a new American Indian education program last school year to help American Indian students prepare to graduate and go on to college.
The decision continues to divide the community.
“I understand why some people want to [remove it] but it was never a disrespectful thing,” said Pam Storlien, a 1975 graduate. “There was never any negativity behind that symbol; it was one of honor and pride.”
But some alumni like Eleria said he was surprised to hear it was even still there.
“I felt as though it was unfinished business,” he said. “Everything else was changed. It was something that was probably forgotten.”