Indiana High School sign 2016-001

From an online petition site that bills itself as “the world’s platform for change,” www.change.org, the rhetoric spilled over into social media as debate between pro- and anti-mascot writers filled Facebook and Twitter feeds with a mix of emotion-laden and logic-based arguments to push their points.

Frankie Baumer took to change.org on Wednesday to launch her call for supporters to sign up against the mascot, saying it’s not right for the district to use the nickname and a logo depicting an Indian tribal chief in ceremonial headdress for its gain.

“I’ve always felt that the imagery around our sports teams is inappropriate overall,” Baumer said.

“I don’t think it’s appropriate for any group of marginalized people to be represented as a mascot. What if the name of a sports team was the Jews? That’s not appropriate.

“Our school is mostly white and we’re profiting off this. Native Americans have been massacred by white people, and you don’t learn about that in school. We’re not proud of it, obviously.”

Baumer spelled it out as she posted the online petition.

“Indiana means ‘Indian Land,’ because the land we live on now was taken from the Shawnee indigenous people,” Baumer wrote in the prelude to her Petition to Change High School’s Racist “Indians” Sports Teams Name. “Considering the school district makes money from selling t-shirts with the logo and uses imagery of a chief as a figurehead, the school is profiting off of cultural appropriation and racism, as well as a large amount of cultural insensitivity.”

It’s not an unfamiliar sentiment in Indiana. A years-long campaign to rid Indiana University of Pennsylvania of its Indian nickname and mascot led in the 1990s to the adoption of a bear as the mascot in place of a Native American image while the teams kept the “Indians” name.

In 2006, the university acquiesced to National Collegiate Athletic Association pressure to leave the name behind, and adopted Crimson Hawks for the sports team imagery, all amidst polarizing debate among IUP students, alumni and townspeople.

Allies chimed in with similar sentiments as they added their digital signatures — 402 as of 10 this morning — to Baumer’s online petition.

“I’m ashamed of how many people in my hometown don’t understand why this is cultural appropriation,” Brynn Arnall wrote. “This is exactly the reason why I left. The backwards opinions and viewpoints are disgusting and I can only hope changing the mascot will be the first step towards positive change in this close-minded community.”

“I want to change the stagnant ignorance of western PA,” wrote Jonny Altrogge.

Erik Blank wrote that the mascot has its place in the past and should be left there.

“The use of a generic Indian ‘Chief’ has a mascot Harkens back to the days that there were wooden Indians standing outside of cigar stores. Let’s step out of the 18th century and bring forward a new mascot that does not bring with it all the baggage (of) our forefathers’ hatred and short-sightedness (toward) the tribes of the pre-Columbian Americans.”

By Friday, rival petition efforts began on the change.org site, mounted by longtime area residents and Indiana Area School District alumni in a bid to preserve their own heritage.

“Indiana has had the Indian as its mascot forever,” Sherri Johnson wrote in a petition, “Let’s Keep the Indiana Indians Name!!,” that she posted Friday. “As far as logos and selling merchandise to make money … parents, family, students, and friends buy the merchandise to advertise and appreciate the teams and those whom are playing or participating. The school in this case, puts the money right back into the school whether it’s supplies, field trip funding,  equipment, struggling programs, etc. … It’s part of our history and we don’t want to change it.”

Vinnie DiMatteo started a petition on Thursday, “Keep the Indiana Indians name,” disagreeing with complaints that the use of the mascot and nickname demonstrate racism.

“So I am looking for signatures against those trying to take away (our) school’s heritage and pride. So what’s next,  they want to take away Cherokee as our rally song, and you can’t wear the color red because it offends someone? This is our heritage and a lot of people have taken pride in being in Indian!!!”

Supporters fell in line — some being upset simply by the very call for change, and others echoing sentiments that the historic representations of Native Americans to signify the district’s athletic programs are a source of pride for graduates and symbol of honor for the community’s earliest inhabitants.

“I’m signing because of my pride in Native Americans and my heritage,” wrote Indiana grad Bernhard Spieker. “It is NOT offensive to me.”

“I’m signing because I don’t personally understand a reason to change the name,” wrote Scott Salser, a music teacher in the district. “I’m not intending to be offensive to those who may feel differently, but rather, I would think having mascots like the Fighting Irish, the Braves, and the Indians would bring a sense of pride and nobility to those groups of people. Go Indians!”

Former school board member Diana Paccapaniccia said there’s noble intent behind the nickname.

“I never sign petitions but I made an exception for this one. If one does a little research on the history of Indiana County they will find out that the mascot and the name Indians was used to honor the tribe that lived in southern Indiana County.”

“I disowned IUP ever since they didn’t fight to keep Big Indians,” according to Carol Marinas, who suggested that the name refers to the town, not the Native Americans.

“It has nothing to do with degrading Indians but has to do with the name of the town. Everyone sees and knows this. … Is anyone going to fight for Indiana Little Indians? Let’s hope so ... we have locals that take pride in our town. It is the town’s name people ... not after Native Indians.”

Tim Palmer reflected a different kind of resentment: “I’m sick of people being offended about everything.”

None of the petitions have formally been presented to Indiana Area School District for consideration, according to school board President Walter Schroth.

“The board does not meet until Aug. 13, and while I have no knowledge whether they’ll present it then, that would be the first public opportunity to do so,” Schroth said. He said the board would decide whether to assign such a request to a committee for study.

Meanwhile, the online petitions continue to gather support.

DiMatteo’s petition eclipsed 1,300 signatures at 9:53 this morning, and Johnson’s had 1,230.

It’s the kind of response Baumer said she expected and is accustomed to.

Baumer, 17, a transgender senior at Indiana Area Senior High School, said she is seen as a controversial person at school and a leader in bringing sensitive topics to the fore.

“Over the past two years, I’ve been getting a lot more into activism and different areas and I think the Native American population in Indiana is not spoken up for.

“Since I am white I can use my privilege to talk about this issue, and use the information I have and start a conversation about it,” Baumer said. “I think the tipping point for me was that I couldn’t take it any more. I was just done.

“A lot of people in my school don’t like me; I knew when I did this I would get a lot of pushback and people telling me I’m wrong. But I can do this. I have confidence in myself and confidence in the school district.”

In the face of resistance, Baumer founded a club for LGBTQ people at Indiana High School and braced for the blowback.

“I am trans and I get a lot of negative feedback on me existing,” she said. “When I started a whole club about it, people were not happy to say the least.”

Baumer’s plans after graduation are to study fashion photography and fashion journalism, and said she’s considering art and fashion schools in New York and Paris.

Thus Baumer said she has an eye for what the Indians could be instead.

Adidas, the athletic equipment company, has a grant program that offers professional design assistance for schools that shed Native American names and images.

“IUP changed the imagery surrounding Indians to Crimson Hawks, and before that we were connected, same imagery,” Baumer said. “I thought it would be appropriate to be the Little Crimson Hawks or something like that.

“And Adidas will redesign sports wear, pay for it and help you change your imagery. It’s a really cool grant.”

Eric Barker, of Indiana, a progressive political analyst, lamented the emotional responses on the mascot issue in a message on Facebook.

And he predicted that a youth-driven effort is positioned to gain ground.

“Some have cautioned that such a polarizing issue could cost us some votes. Perhaps it will, perhaps it won’t,” Barker wrote. “It did give me pause, because continuing to save our neighborhood schools and de-electing problematic members of the Indiana Area School Board are of much greater importance. Having this struggle first in minds of voters who are much more likely to oppose the change isn’t a great strategy to win elections.

“Part of this may come down to if Indiana Area School District students currently enrolled in the district support the change or not. The more senior residents of the district will generally oppose it.

“I think it’s important to treat others that have differing viewpoints with dignity and respect. … We can have healthy disagreements without tearing each other down. To win on this issue, we need five of nine votes of current board members.”

Staff writer/Web Editor, The Indiana (Pa.) Gazette

Staff Writer/Web Editor

Chauncey Ross represents the Gazette at the Indiana Area and Homer-Center school boards and White Township, Center Township, Homer City and Burrell Township, and is something of an Open Records, Right to Know and Sunshine Law advocate in the newsroom.