Iris Samuels, Anchorage Daily News, February 10, 2022
The Ketchikan school district has launched an investigation after the local high school pep squad dressed in cowboy hats and boots for a basketball game against the Metlakatla Chiefs, eliciting raw emotions and condemnation from community members in Alaska’s only Native American reserve.
The pep squad dressed in a “country” theme for Saturday’s game in Ketchikan. To players and parents from Metlakatla — an Indigenous community in Southeast Alaska where basketball is an important part of everyday life — the outfits were a painful symbol of the cowboys and Indians stereotype that is associated with a history of brutal violence toward Native Americans.
The incident has left some wondering if a racist past is resurfacing.
In a strongly worded letter from Metlakatla Mayor Albert Smith to Ketchikan schools superintendent Melissa Johnson on Wednesday, Smith called the pep theme “hurtful and emotionally violent,” recalling a time when, 77 years ago, signs in Ketchikan storefronts read “No dogs or Natives allowed.”
“There is broader historical context, one of white supremacy, genocide and trauma, that permeates the white-privileged blindness that allowed the cowboys-and-Indians pep theme to form,” Smith wrote.
The Ketchikan Gateway Borough School District, Ketchikan High School and school board chairman Stephen Bradford were quick to apologize on social media after the game, calling it an incident of “cultural insensitivity.”
”The district will not tolerate any form of cultural mistreatment and we’ll take all appropriate actions to ensure our schools and students uphold the highest standards of sportsmanship, respect and hospitality,” the statement from the district read.
But Smith condemned the district’s response as “remarkably muted” and called for “a strong response, equal to the harm” inflicted on the Metlakatla community, including an investigation and disciplinary action.
Johnson did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday. The district’s investigation is ongoing.
Richard Chalyee Éesh Peterson, president of the Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska, also wrote a letter to the Ketchikan superintendent and school board president.
“The very fact that no student, advisor, teacher, or coach had the foresight to see the issue in this, speaks to the desperate need for Alaska Native history education and racial equity in your community. Ignorance and naivete are no excuse for racism, even if unintended,” Peterson wrote.
In coming up with the theme for Saturday’s game, the pep club had in mind “square dancing, farming, flannels, and hats,” one student said. But Indigenous scholars and leaders point to the history of harm embodied in the cowboy image.
Michael Yellow Bird, an expert on the effects of colonization and a professor of social work at the University of Manitoba, has written that cowboys and Indians “represent the overt and hidden hatred and fear that many Americans harbor toward Indigenous, dark skinned peoples. They are symbolic of the white colonizer’s claim of superiority and Indigenous Peoples’ inferiority.”
Members of the Ketchikan pep club say they did not realize the country theme they chose for the event would be offensive, nor did they realize that the barking sounds they make during free throws would be construed as racially insensitive.