Kendra Haag’s family on the reservation couldn’t bear to watch her play soccer — or any of her other sports — in high school.
She was a solid player, but the uniform she wore at every school event was emblazoned with a racial slur too painful and humiliating to bear — Savage. The image of the school mascot depicted a Native American.
Haag, now 29, is a member of the Kickapoo tribe.
Her parents moved from a border town near the reservation in Kansas to St. Joseph, about 14 miles from Savannah, a town of about 5,000 people in northwest Missouri, where she attended school. Her father was a member of the tribal council; her grandfather a war chief. From second grade until she graduated, Haag bore the shame of that word and image on her uniforms and school T-shirts.
In the small rural town, where life centers around the high school, the word was everywhere. In the 1990s, the city council voted to paint “Savannah Savages” and the mascot on the town’s water tower.
“I remember obviously not feeling good about it. Wishing it would change, but not having the power to do so at that young age,” Haag said.
A few years after her youngest brother graduated from high school, she joined a movement to rid the district of its mascot. Recently, Haag, now living in Arizona, helped to circulate an online petition to urge the school board to remove the slur. At a time when professional sports teams with Native American names and mascots are seriously considering removing them from their branding, Savannah is fighting to keep its “Savage” pride.
In the town, which is about 98% white, generations have attended the same high school. Many participate in a daylong homecoming, often years after graduating. Even still, the severity of the backlash has stunned Haag. She’s been called obscenities and threatened.
A counter petition to keep the mascot has more than 2,100 signatures. The local paper ran a front-page, banner headline declaring "We are all Savages” on a recent graduation story. Mayor Kirk Larson refused to answer a reporter’s question “during work hours” and did not return calls to comment.
Haag remembers her teammates singing a refrain from the song from the 1995 Disney movie “Pocahontas”: “Savages, savages barely even human.”
She would storm out of the locker room when she would hear it.
“Everyone knew I was Native.”
She remembers pep rallies and homecomings, where students would make teepees and put on costumes, wearing fake feathers and war paint, with no idea of how disrespectful it was to her culture and identity.
Jason Harris, a graduate who now lives in Kirkwood, says he understands both sides of the issue and believes the majority of the town sees it as a symbol of pride not mockery.
“I've worn that Savage on my body for probably 10 years of my life,” he said. “They call it Savage pride. They don’t look at it like they are offending anyone. They are proud to be called a Savage.”
It’s not as simple as just changing a name, it’s about changing the identity of the town, he explained. Part of it is reluctance to change something that binds their families together.
“All they have ever known is being a Savage,” he said.
To an outsider keeping such an obvious slur in this day and age seems preposterous.
“Savages? In 2020?,” said Tyrone Terrill, secretary of the National Coalition Against Racism in Sports and Media, who wrote a letter in support of changing the name and mascot to the school board before their July 14 meeting, where they will discuss the issue.
“Their name ‘Savages’ is more racist than the name Redskins,” he said. He suggested the school board president could keep the name as long as she replaced the Native person mascot with her own image.
There are signs that attitudes toward the symbol and name are changing, especially among the younger generations and those who moved away.
David Kozminski writes in the petition to change comments that he is a proud graduate and valedictorian from the school.
“To this day I regret that I didn’t speak up more when I had the chance. And now that I’m old enough, mature enough, wise enough to know, I’m going to try to do the right thing.”
He said he knew back then the name was bigoted but remained silent. Now that he’s about to become a father for the first time, he cannot stay silent anymore.
“I decided that for me to be able to look (my son) in the eye and encourage him to stand up for the right thing — to stand up for vulnerable people even when it’s not easy — that I have to start doing the right thing myself.”
Haag said a few of her former classmates have reached out to her to apologize if they had said ignorant or racist comments to her growing up. Other supporters have said they are willing to donate money to help the school pay for changing its signage.
For Haag, changing the name and mascot is a first step to healing the pain it caused her and her family. Another former graduate, Amanda Barr, explained in her Change.org petition that the damage to all the students, who grew up seeing the racist name and imagery as normal, went much deeper.
“We were never taught the importance or history of the land we stood on,” Barr wrote on her post, which now has more than 3,500 supporters. “I didn’t know until much later on that I grew up on the homelands of the Kiikaapoi (Kickapoo), Osage, Kaw (Kansa), and Očeti Šakówiŋ (Sioux). I did know, however, that the mascot for my school, the one that was painted all over town and used as a logo for so many businesses, made me feel ill.”
Haag’s father and other tribal leaders plan to attend the school board meeting to advocate for the long overdue change.
It remains to be seen whether the town is ready to listen.
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