A Native American parent group calling for the mascot’s removal said the “Chief” is derogatory and offensive to Native Americans.
D’Ann Lawrence White , Patch Staff
The prospect of losing the school’s longtime Chiefs mascot brought 1971 graduate Dan Dill to tears as he spoke to the school board.
Chamberlain High School’s trademark “Indian Chief” mascot on the exterior of the school will come down following Tuesday night’s school board vote.
SEMINOLE HEIGHTS, FL — Over the objections of more than a dozen Chamberlain High School alumni and a petition containing nearly 6,800 signatures, the Hillsborough County School Board voted 5-1 to ditch the school’s 65-year-old mascot, the Chief, based on the argument that it is derogatory and offensive to Native Americans.
Located at 9401 North Boulevard in North Tampa, Chamberlain High School’s sports teams, band and other organizations have been known as the Chiefs or Fighting Chiefs since the school opened in 1956.
Founding alumni told the board they chose the name based on Hillsborough County’s heritage as home to Native American tribes including Muskogan, Tomokan, Caloosa, Creek, Tocobaga and Seminole, and the fact that the word “chief” represents leadership, accomplishment and respect.
Alumni recalled collecting dimes and quarters in the school cafeteria to purchase the school’s trademark “chief’s head” emblem mounted on the front of the school building.
The prospect of losing the school’s longtime mascot brought 1971 graduate Dan Dill to tears as he spoke to the board.
He said he has a great respect for the indigenous people of North America.
After graduating from Chamberlain, Dill went on to obtain his master’s degree in biology and medical science, writing his thesis on medicinal plants of North America used by indigenous people.
“This matter is extremely emotional to a lot of people. I’m upset that Chamberlain is about to lose its ‘Chief,'” he said. “I am Iroquois from many generations ago, a heritage near and dear to my heart. It meant a lot to me to be a proud Chief, learning to fight for everything I had, learning to fight through the adversity.”
Like other alumni speaking before and after him, Dill, a member of the Chamberlain High School Legacy Alliance , a organization composed of alumni that raises money for the school, appealed to the Hillsborough County Title VI Parent Advisory Committee to work with the alumni on a compromise that will prevent a 65-year-old school tradition from being wiped out.
The advisory committee is part of a national organization of parents whose children are enrolled in the Title VI Initiative , formed under the Indian Education Formula Grant to help increase school attendance rates, academic achievement and college enrollment among students of Native American heritage, in addition to increasing their cultural identity.
According to chairwoman of the Hillsborough County Title VI committee, Shannon Durant, the group has been working for the past eight years to have all school mascots related to Native Americans removed, including Indians, chiefs, warriors and braves, maintaining that they are derogatory and damage the self-esteem of students of Native American heritage.
To date, at the group’s urging, the school board has removed Native American mascots for Adams Middle School and Brooker, Forest Hills, Ruskin, Summerfield and Thonotosassa elementary schools.
After Tuesday’s retirement of the Chief mascot, the only public school remaining in Hillsborough County with a Native American mascot is the East Bay High School Indians, and that’s only because the student body unanimously voted to keep the mascot.
Chamberlain 1965 alumnus Marilyn Pierce, who is among three generations of her family who have attended Chamberlain, said the high school wasn’t afforded the same democratic process East Bay received. Instead, she said the decision was made by Chamberlain’s Student Government Association at the urging of the Title VI committee.
“I find it difficult to accept that a small percentage of students can make the decision to change it,” she said.
She said a town hall meeting on the topic that would have given the alumni a chance to comment was postponed due to the pandemic and never rescheduled. And a survey on the issue posted on the school’s website was prematurely taken down and the results never made public.
Pamela Gall of the class of 1965 said the school board has allowed the SGA, “a small group of current students and their faculty adviser who’s fresh out of college and leading the charge to decide that the chief is offensive.”
“The school board is about to vote on a contentious and divisive issue without letting all of the stakeholders be a part of the process,” said Marybeth Palmer of the class of 1965. ” There has been a dire lack of transparency as the decision-making process unfolded. Where’s the data of the survey?”
She said the cartoonish symbols and offensive traditions such as having the homecoming king and queen and members of the drum corps dress as Native Americans and hosting the Busk, or Green Corn Thanksgiving, based on a Calusa harvest festival, were eliminated long ago.
A member of the first graduating class of Chamberlain in 1958, 82-year-old Betty Sue White Brown agreed. Brown was Chamberlain’s first “Chiefette,” the school’s version of majorettes, and said she made the school’s first Chiefette costumes by hand.
“I’m not real happy with the way all of this was done,” she said. “East Bay students had two days to vote and they voted unanimously to keep their mascot as the Indian. Chamberlain had only 418 out of its 1,100 students vote and 22 percent agreed to remove the mascot. “That’s a minority, not a majority.”
Back in 1965, Brown said the student body chose the Chief as its mascot to encourage inspiration and leadership, attributes that have since produced Chamberlain alumni Rhea Law, the newly appointed president of the University of South Florida; MLB legendary first baseman Steve Garvey; Tampa Mayor Jane Castor; Hillsborough County Commissioner Ken Hagan; Florida Rep. Kathy Castor; international model Lauren Hutton; and actress Shannon Doherty.
Cinda Huntley of the Chamberlain class of 1965 said her great-grandfather was a member of the Muskogan tribe and she never felt the mascot was racist. Rather, she associated it with leadership and excellence, and she believes her great-grandfather would as well.
“The alumni were never contacted about this change and did not know about the vote until last week,” she told the school board. “This has created a lot of disappointment. We would like to form a committee of students, faculty, members of the indigenous alliance group and alumni to discuss this and see if there’s any way we can come up with a plan that would satisfy all groups.”
Oscar Gonzalez, who retired after 31 years as a teacher, coach and administrator from Hillsborough County Schools, is a former coach and teacher at Chamberlain and sent all three of his children to the school.
While teaching at Chamberlain, Gonzalez noted that the principal was current school board member Shake Washington, who he said relished dressing up and posing as the school’s fictional Indian chief, Chief Oom Pah-Pah.
“He (Washington) became the big chief,” Gonzalez said. “He dressed the part, looked the part and the students loved him. He took it to a level that was unreal. He showed the respect for the sacred role the chief stood for.”
“‘Chief’ is a term of respect,” said 1967 graduate Mary Schaeffer. “But some people have decided they want to destroy our history, and I think this has to stop now.”
“I suggest the Chief at Chamberlain High School be viewed in a different framework,” she said. “Continue to keep the Chief as a symbol while choosing a different mascot. FSU claims the Seminole as a symbol, not a mascot. Then we can move forward and be more accepting and sensitive to those Americans with an indigenous heritage.”
“The term ‘Chief’ is not a perjorative term in any manner,” said Tampa attorney Paul Cisco, a 1985 Chamberlain graduate. “It is nothing but a symbol of pride, it’s a symbol of integrity, of character. The term ‘Chief’ was chosen in the ’50s not as a slight, not as disparagement, not as a dig at anyone or any group of people, but as a strong symbol of the principles that students, teachers and parents of high school should aspire to.”
Joey Larson, a graduate of Chamberlain’s class of 1987 and a descendant of the Choctaw tribe, said, in their efforts to promote inclusiveness, groups like Title VI are scrubbing society of its traditions and history.
He said Title VI group’s mission to remove all references to Native Americans from public schools “is possibly blinding them from seeing these steps are doing more long-term damage than good” by wiping out a symbol of greatness in history.”
On the other side of the issue, Chamberlain parent and Title VI member Jennifer Hart said “these mascots are teaching stereotypical, misleading and often insulting images of indigenous people.”
“It’s a direct reflection of institutional racism. It affects the self-esteem of Native American students,” she said. “We need to create inclusive and safe places of learning.”
Durant added that she did reached out to the alumni and invited them to get involved in the process.
“When they say we didn’t include them, they didn’t include themselves,” she said.
She urged the school board to heed the recommendation of the Chamberlain SGA.
“This was led by students,” she said. “If we can’t honor what the students want, what are we doing?”
The alumni said they haven’t given up the fight despite Tuesday night’s school board vote. They are continuing to circulate their a Change.org petition to keep the Chamberlain mascot, now has signed by 6,790 people.
Cisco said the group is also investigating legal avenues to reverse the school board’s decision.
Former school board member Tamara Shamberger, who was chairwoman of the school board when the discussions about removing mascots with Native American references was introduced, reminded the board that the school board’s own policy prohibits the retroactive removal of mascots adopted before 2019 to preserve the legacies of these schools.
“If it’s your perogative to change the mascots, you should change your policy first,” she said.
Nevertheless, school board members Jessica Vaughn, Nadia Combs, Shake Washington, Karen Perez and Lynn Gray voted to strip Chamberlain of its mascot. Melissa Snively voted to keep it and Stacy Hahn was absent from the meeting.
It was former Chamberlain “Big Chief, school board member Washington, who made the motion to change the mascot, saying,“It’s time for a change.”
“I understand that this is very painful for a lot of adults,” board member Jessica Vaughn said. “And I have tried to be very empathetic about that, even though I’ve seen some horrific comments on social media and I’ve heard some very disappointing comments coming out of the audience today.”
The school district will have to spend $17,150 to change all the signs and logos used by the school and another $32,126 for new band and sports unforms and banners.
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