Education

Union Public Schools board of education votes to drop controversial mascot

Photo caption: Union Public Schools board of education voted to drop its controversial mascot. Courtesy Photo

TULSA — One of Oklahoma’s largest public school districts has decided to stop using a racial slur as a mascot.  

On Nov. 9, the board of education for Union Public Schools voted unanimously to drop its long-standing mascot that was previously utilized by the professional football team in Washington, D.C.

The vote also extends to the accompanying branding, logos and imagery involving Indigenous stereotypes, including having football players run through a tipi at home games.

“Without question, this name is one that has become increasingly divisive,” Union Superintendent Kirk Hartzler said. “For many, it has been a symbol of pride, honor and tradition. For others, it has caused pain. We received an overwhelming number of requests from Union insiders calling for change. With a name like Union, we can’t hang on to things that cause division.” 

Earlier this year, the school board voted to form a committee to review the district’s mascot and make a recommendation about its future. Along with non-voting appointees from the Cherokee and Muscogee (Creek) nations, the committee included representatives from the district’s faculty, staff, Indian Education parent committee, alumni, community and student body.

Citing a host of reasons, the committee voted 24-3 to recommend the elimination of the mascot after months of regular meetings. Among the factors taken into consideration were the word’s dictionary definition, the potential long-term financial impacts on the district if it kept using the slur and academic research on the harmful impact of Native-themed mascots on Indigenous students. According to a Union spokesman, Indigenous students account for more than 4 percent of the district’s enrollment, representing 58 tribes.

“This decision is not one that was made easily or lightly,” committee chairman Chris Payne said. “Outside of Union circles, the name is widely considered an offensive term.”

Osage Casinos CEO Byron Bighorse was among the Union alumni appointed to the committee. In an email, he said he said was very happy that the board followed the committee’s recommendation.

“It’s time,” he said.

Although the change takes effect immediately, Union officials said it will take several months to catalog and address all the places across the district that have some form of the mascot, such as locker room murals, room signs and uniforms.

No action was taken by the board to introduce or endorse a replacement mascot and no concrete timetable was given for when one would be introduced. In the interim, the district’s extracurricular teams will simply be known as “Union.”

According to 2019-2020 enrollment figures from the Oklahoma Department of Education, Union has about 16,000 students, making it the state’s ninth largest school district. Statewide enrollment counts for the current school year have not yet been released.