A push to save the Chieftains at Columbia River High School

Vancouver Public Schools board could retire name and logo at meeting next week

Vancouver Public Schools could retire the mascot for Columbia River High School as early as next week at a board meeting, but many associated with the school are not ready to move on from the Chieftains.

They say that the imagery of the Chieftains, the logo, should change, but the name should be saved. They are asking for more time to showcase the work and research they have done in recent years in an effort to make Columbia River High School a center of education for Native American culture.

Columbia River High School officials have been in the process of doing away with Native American imagery for its logo and going with CR. Some on the school board want to retire the name “Chieftains” and the logo. Photo by Mike Schultz
Columbia River High School officials have been in the process of doing away with Native American imagery for its logo and going with CR. Some on the school board want to retire the name “Chieftains” and the logo. Photo by Mike Schultz

Bradford Williams, a graduate and now a teacher at Columbia River, said that while technically the Chieftain is the school’s mascot, teachers and students do not treat it as a mascot.

“It’s an identity,” he said. “The name ‘Chieftain’ is a symbol, representing (a) leader. It talks about our job at Columbia River High School to create leaders.”

There was a 45-minute discussion on the topic at an online school board retreat on Aug. 25, which included three people representing area tribes. At the conclusion of the discussion, the board agreed that a vote should take place at a future meeting.

“It’s my recommendation that we retire the Chieftain name and logo,” said board member Kathy Decker. 

Board member Wendy Smith, a Columbia River graduate, agreed with the recommendation. She said she appreciates the passion of those who want to keep the name. After hearing from those against the name, though, she is asking for a new direction.

“If it is offensive, and it clearly is, we have heard, there’s just no cause to keep it in place. If it’s causing hurt or pain to any of our students … we need to be really mindful of that … and do what’s right.”

Columbia River High School still has some imagery of Native American logos across its campus. In recent years, the school is moving toward using CR instead of a human as its logo. The school might be changing its mascot and logo soon. Photo by Mike Schultz
Columbia River High School still has some imagery of Native American logos across its campus. In recent years, the school is moving toward using CR instead of a human as its logo. The school might be changing its mascot and logo soon. Photo by Mike Schultz

Williams and other supporters of the name say there can be a compromise. 

In 2019, Williams said, the school started a rebranding committee to come up with a logo that did not use human form. For now, Columbia River’s athletic teams are moving toward the use of “CR.” 

“As uniforms need to be replaced, we are phasing the ‘CR’ in and the Chieftain head out,” Williams said. 

This past school year, a letter was composed asking area tribes for their input in creating a new logo, with the goal to use a “respectful representation of the tribes connected to our general area and the land that our school is built on.” The letter was signed by seven people, including a student leader, two administrators, including the principal, as well as teachers and coaches.

The letter was never mailed because school was called off during the pandemic. But Williams, one of the teachers who signed the document, said the existence of the letter shows that Columbia River High School is trying to address concerns. There is no Native American imagery on the letterhead. Just the letters CR and “Home of the Chieftains.” 

The image of the Columbia River Chieftain, shown here in the background in this 2019 photo, should go away, but the name should remain, supporters of the Chieftains say. Photo by Mike Schultz
The image of the Columbia River Chieftain, shown here in the background in this 2019 photo, should go away, but the name should remain, supporters of the Chieftains say. Photo by Mike Schultz

The school also went through the process of potentially changing the name in the 2018-19 academic year. Williams said faculty worked with students from the social justice club who inquired about a new mascot. Elders from the Chinook and Cowlitz Tribes met with those students that year.
“When the students point-blanked asked if the name was offensive to them, they said no,” Williams recalled. “They had no problem with us using the name Chieftains.”

Tribal elders did have a problem with the image of the Columbia River Chieftain, with its feather headdress and face. The image did not represent tribes in this region, the school was told.

In the spring of 2019, the student body voted in favor of keeping the name.

Since that vote, adults and students have been working to find ways to celebrate Native American culture. Among the ideas:

  • Some English and history teachers have already incorporated Native American literature and lessons into their curriculum.
  • There is a movement to ask the Chinook Indian Nation to bless the land that the school has been on since it opened in 1962.
  • Native American cultural assemblies.
  • A partnership with a native school for education, fundraising, and cultural celebrations.
  • A permanent display case for Native American presentations, and perhaps a mural depicting Native American life.

Supporters of the name point out that tribal members are split on the issue. There is not 100 percent agreement within the Native American community.

At the retreat, the board heard from Mike Iyall, tribal council member for the Cowlitz Tribe, Nathan Reynolds, director of the Cowlitz Tribe Culture Department, and Sam Robinson, vice chairman of the Chinook Indian Nation. All three said it was time for a change.

Also at the retreat, a statement from Pretty Dear Eagleman of the Native American Guardians Association was read. She recommended saving the name. 

David Barnett, a tribal council member for the Cowlitz who was instrumental in the development of the ilani Casino, was not at the board retreat. He told Clark County Today that as a former athlete, he would have loved to compete for a high school with a Native American tribute, as long as it was respectful.

“Done properly, it’s a great thing,” Barnett said.

He added that he does see both sides of the issue. Fans using inappropriate gestures, such as a Tomahawk Chop, need to stop. If Columbia River continues its work to showcase the name with respect, he is all on board with the Chieftains.

“A lot of Natives look at some of the more respectful names and mascots and it gives them a sense of pride,” he said. “A lot of people recognize Native Americans as great athletes.”

Two years ago, the Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians wrote a letter to Columbia River High School officials saying it does not support a change, noting that the use of Native American symbols by a local school demonstrates “strength and resiliency.” 

The Siletz does not condone inappropriate behavior in regard to Native American mascots, but “we do believe wiping any semblance of Native Americans from the public eye is a continued attempt to exterminate our existence from our homelands.” 

The experts online at the board retreat had other opinions.

“Native mascots, they often have a negative impact on Native youth. It’s too often a slur,” Iyall said. “It’s an idea that’s time has passed.”

Staff and students have been working with area tribes to find a way to honor Native Americans and create a new logo at Columbia River High School, the home of the Chieftains. Photo by Mike Schultz
Staff and students have been working with area tribes to find a way to honor Native Americans and create a new logo at Columbia River High School, the home of the Chieftains. Photo by Mike Schultz

Reynolds said that the issue “probably” should never have gone to the students for a vote in 2019. This is a leadership opportunity and he was there to encourage board members that it is time to make the change.

“You’re supposed to be leading the students. You’re supposed to be educating them,” he said.

He added, “This is fundamentally a human rights issue. Everybody deserves dignity. No one deserves to be a stereotype.”

Robinson also gave a nod toward a new beginning for Columbia River High School.

“In today’s world, there seems to be a push toward people’s awareness toward minorities,” he said. “We’re feeling this is a good time for a change.”

While the agenda for the Sept. 8 board meeting has not been posted as of this report, a VPS official told Clark County Today that it is believed action on this subject will be heard at the meeting. A vote could take place.

Those wishing to keep the name are hoping the board will give them more time to be heard. An online petition in support of the Chieftains name has been signed by more than 600 people, a list that includes current and former students, as well as teachers and community members.

“I would like to keep the identity of Chieftains,” said Williams, who said he has been involved with the Columbia River community as a student, coach, and teacher for 35 years. “It is part of who I am. I’m a Chieftain.”

Board members at the retreat said if the Chieftain name is retired, it will be an opportunity for students and staff to begin new traditions. 

Williams would prefer education to lead the way with the traditional name.

“If the school changes its name, its identity, I as an alumni will always be a Chieftain,” Williams said. “That’s who I am. I know a lot of alumni feel that way. Will we respect the board’s change? Of course.”

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About The Author

Paul Valencia joins ClarkCountyToday.com after more than two decades of newspaper experience. He became the face of high school sports coverage in Clark County during his 17 years at The Columbian. Before moving to Vancouver, Paul worked at Oregon daily newspapers in Pendleton, Roseburg, and Salem. A graduate of David Douglas High School in Portland, Paul enlisted in the U.S. Army, serving three years as a soldier/journalist. He and his wife Jenny recently celebrated their 20th anniversary. They have a son who has a passion for karate and Minecraft. Paul’s hobbies include: Watching the Raiders play football, reading about the Raiders playing football, and waiting to watch and read about the Raiders playing football.

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