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East Peoria Community High School asks city: is it time to drop Native American iconography?

East Peoria Raiders mascot
Tim Shelley
An example of the East Peoria Raiders mascot outside the East Peoria Community High School boys gymnasium.

East Peoria Community High School's administration has forecasted a debate on the school's usage of Native American iconography on the horizon for quite some time. Now, the district is reckoning with how to tackle it as the issue hits home.

House Bill 4783 would require schools using a Native American mascot or icon to receive written consent from a tribe within 500 miles of the school to retain it. It would also require a school-wide program on Native American culture at least twice a year, a course outlining Native American contributions, and submit an annual report to the state board of education.

A bill cracking down on Native American school mascots stalled in the last session of the Illinois General Assembly. But East Peoria Community High School Superintendent Marjorie Greuter believes that legislation due for a comeback, and she wants to take a proactive approach to changing the school's Native American iconography if the community believes it's needed.

Some of those changes have already quietly taken place in anticipation of the national debate eventually coming to East Peoria, Greuter said. For instance, the school's Native American head mascot was removed from the gymnasium floor in favor of a new red and gold "EP" when it was renovated to save on the potential expenditure of removing it down the road.

Most members of the sparse but vocal audience attending a community forum Wednesday night in the high school auditorium physically separated themselves into two camps, with empty seats left between. It was a visible symbol of the emotional divide the mascot has created in the community, particularly among older generations who cherish it and younger people passionate about change.

East Peoria Fire Chief John Knapp said he doesn't see the mascot and imagery the school uses as offensive, but rather, the exact opposite.

"I think we honor the history of the people that that founded this area and had been here far longer than we have. I think from my perspective, when I can go out on my property, and find a lot of the the artifacts of these tribes. I think it does nothing more than honor our area and East Peoria in and of itself, and I really struggle with losing some of that history because of a lot of perceived notions that it's a disrespect. I think it's exactly the opposite of that. And I think it's a real shame to lose some of that," Knapp said.

Senior Trevor McGinnis said he feels the school has lost "Raider pride" over the last four years with the phasing-out of some school traditions, like the war chant.

"If we removed and renamed traditions such as the mascot, this will not be the same school. We will not have any traditions for future students who should have the same rights to experience traditions as my class and past classes of the school had," he said.

Fellow EPCHS senior Bryce Woodard saw it differently. He said he thought the war chant at home basketball and football games was exciting in his freshman year, but as he began to learn more about Native American culture, he became ashamed.

"I realized that it wasn't really school pride. It was more just puppeteering a culture for the sake of our shallow entertainment," Woodard said.

East Peoria Mayor John Kahl said the city's Native American history goes back to the Fox and Kickapoo tribes who once called the region home. He also noted East Peoria is home to a Native American burial mound in the Spring Creek Preserve.

Danira Parra, the pastor of Dayspring Native American United Methodist Church in East Peoria, said other Nations also called Central Illinois home, and she can't tell that the high school mascot represents any of them.

"When you look at that mascot, you can't really tell who is it that is being depicted. Why is that person being depicted? There's a rich history of Native American people here. That rich history isn't seen in that mascot. I don't know, I've lived here for six years. And I don't know anything about the rich history of that mascot here," Parra said.

EPCHS U.S. History teacher Ben Diggle said the school's "Raiders" team name is also problematic.

"Quite frankly, they (native tribes) were driven out of here by the Iroquois because they weren't violent, and the Iroquois frequently raided them. So I leave you with that. I think there's other ways we can go and still honor the rich history of this area."

Kahl, who emphasized he isn't a fan of "cancel culture" or "political correctness," said no discrimination is intended in the school's "Raiders" name.

Until the 1990s, the school's team name was "Red Raiders." Senior Madeline Ingolia said that's telling in and of itself.

"If it weren't racism, we would be able to identify the tribe we're representing. We would be educated about why we're representing this tribe. We would have never had the name 'Red' before 'Raiders' in the first place," she said.

But Kahl said he appreciates how the school administration might see doing away with the imagery as a compromise. He also said there's no rush to act quickly, with the bill in question having never come up for a vote during the last legislative session.

"I just would appreciate the board just pausing. Not taking any further action at this point. That's just my two cents," Kahl said.

Casey Pfeifer, a EPCHS English teacher, encourage the administration to act sooner rather than later on changes.

"We should not sit idly by and wait for legislation to push us into doing what's right," she said.

Parra, the Native American pastor at Dayspring UMC, said the rich history of indigenous peoples in Central Illinois should be shared, but it can be done better.

"I'm not saying that you should remove the mascot. I am saying that it would be nice to be able to be proud of it on all levels, to be able to share the history with a greater community, as well as with the students here. To be able to build relationships with the native people of this area, including those who are no longer in this area, but who were removed by force by the government of that time," Parra said. "Times have changed. People have changed. And I can hear it in the voices. There's a desire for honor and respect to continue. Now it's just a question of finding the way to make that happen."

School board president Andy Paulson said Wednesday's community forum was "a first step."

"This was to gather people together to hear, to listen, and to learn," Paulson said. "And what I would think the next steps will be as a group, as a board, is we'll decide what the next steps are, which I would think would involve some sort of community involvement and stakeholder involvement to see where we would go next, not knowing what that is. But again, I'm very encouraged by this."

The EPCHS Board of Education meets on the third Monday of each month at 6 p.m.

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