Thursday night’s special school board meeting on changing the Napa High School Indian mascot was long, emotional and at times unruly, with moments of intimidation between supporters and opponents.
The prospect of trouble erupting in the charged atmosphere prompted a police presence, something that doesn’t occur at regular meetings of the Napa Valley Unified School District Board of Trustees.
But this was no ordinary meeting, starting with the venue itself. Instead of holding its 90-minute “study session” on the Indian mascot in its regular room that holds 44, the school board opened up the District Auditorium, which seats 650.
Hundreds of people filled most of the auditorium’s lower section, where they voiced their opinions to the school board on whether the Indian mascot should stay or go. An ad hoc committee formed by the school district recommended in February that the Indian be replaced with a new mascot yet to be determined.
Decorum broke down at times inside the auditorium, and at one point the trustees stopped the proceedings altogether and left the stage after a mascot supporter refused to stop talking so others could speak.
The school board made no decision on the mascot’s fate. The trustees decided yet another community meeting should take place on May 9 to allow more discussion, as well as more time to gather facts on the impact of changing Napa High Indians to something else.
The discourse itself boiled down to two groups voicing the importance of history, though they came at the subject from completely different perspectives.
Alan Foss, a 1982 Napa High graduate and self-described “campus king,” admitted he was “very angry” at the idea of the Indian being replaced because Native Americans had complained the mascot was racist.
He said the issue “was not about race,” though he did accuse mascot critics of playing “the race card.”
More importantly, said Foss, “It’s about the history of Napa High.” His remarks echoed those of other school alumni, including those from the 1950s, 60s and 70s, who insisted on maintaining the identity of the Indian in school lore.
“If you take away the mascot,” he said, “you might as well take away the name Napa High.”
History also arose among those calling for the name and logo to change. Current and former students said it was time to remove a symbol offensive to many Native Americans who were subjected to generations of being abused and mischaracterized by sports mascots.
“We as white people need to start listening to the voices of the oppressed,” said a female student. “We are oppressing” Native peoples by using this mascot.
“How can you consider your mascot more important than people’s culture and life?” she asked.
District officials and trustees urged attendees to be respectful to all speakers, who were limited to three minutes each for the sake of time. Most abided by the rule, except for Susan Robinson Jinks.
When she continued to talk in support of keeping the mascot long after her time was up, Chairman Jose Hurtado warned her that he would halt the meeting unless she relinquished the microphone. She didn’t. So Hurtado gaveled an end to the study session and walked off, with the rest of the school board in tow.
Moments later Hurtado returned to the stage. He resumed the proceedings only after those in the audience promised to behave.
Bad behavior also occurred both before and after the study session.
Two hours prior to the meeting, more than 100 boosters and alums quietly rallied on the front steps of the old Napa Union High School building, now used by the school district.
Just as they wrapped up their pro-mascot rally, a group of Native peoples and activists showed up nearby and began performing traditional prayers complete with drums and dancing.
When a man wearing Napa High gear approached the performers, holding a “Napa Indians Forever” sign above his head, some of the activists stood in his way. Shouting ensued as the two sides fought to be heard over the drumming.
The man left the scene after other Napa High supporters encouraged him to do so, though not before he uttered profanities at the activists.
Emotional exchanges also took place after the school board concluded its study session and retired to its normal meeting room for the remainder of its agenda.
During the public comment period, Hakeem Brown from the Vallejo chapter of the NAACP tried discussing the mascot issue, mentioning the enslavement of Native Americans following the arrival of Christopher Columbus. But he was politely cut off by Hurtado who said they were done for the night talking about the Indian.
Brown then started talking about local racism, and accused former Napa High football players of using the “N” word and other racial slurs during games when he played for Hogan High School.
“I played against a lot of your guys,” said Brown, looking back at the audience filled with current Napa High players, parents and boosters, and “one of the things we knew when we played Napa High was we’d have to face racism.”
Brown was briefly interrupted by someone in audience yelling “liar.”
“That is not a lie, that is the straight-up truth,” Brown replied. “And if you don’t believe it, I’ll tell you outside as well.”
Moments later as Brown went to leave, a commotion erupted in the back of the room.
Superintendent Patrick Sweeney bolted from his seat and rushed toward the rear exit, yelling for peace and order.
“Let’s have calm and let’s act like adults,” Sweeney shouted. “We have students in this room, and we all need to behave.”
Outside the meeting room, Brown and Morgan Hannigan, who had criticized those calling Brown a liar, argued with Napa High supporters while three Napa Police officers stood watch to keep the peace.
“What kind of role models are you for your children?” Hannigan said during his remarks inside the meeting. He also took the school board to task, saying: “Are you going to put up with bullying from the audience calling people liars?”
Emotions surrounding the mascot surfaced in February after an 18-member school district committee comprised of students, alumni, parents, teachers, administrators, school board members and activists voted 15-3 to end the use of the Indian.
Angel Heart, a committee member representing the Vallejo-based group, Sacred Sites Protection & Rights of Indigenous Tribes, said the recommendation “didn’t come quickly or easily.” She said “a lot of frustration and anger was directed at me” as well as racially insensitive remarks by other committee members.
As for the school board, trustees gave no indication Thursday night how they might vote on the recommendation to change the mascot.
Hurtado, who expressed having “deep concerns” about the Indian, said the “history of Napa High School will continue to shine, but it doesn’t necessarily have to shine at the expense of our native populations.”