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Q&A: Greuter discusses East Peoria High School’s ‘Raiders’ nickname and use of Native American imagery

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Tim Shelley
/
WCBU
East Peoria Community High School Superintendent Marjorie Greuter, left, speaks as Board President Andy Paulson listens Wednesday during a community forum discussing the school's use of its "Raiders" nickname and associated Native American imagery.

East Peoria Community High School administrators are examining their usage of Native American imagery with the “Raiders” nickname for their sports teams.

A bill introduced last year in the Illinois General Assembly would have established requirements for schools choosing to keep their Native American names. Although that legislation stalled, school officials expect similar legislation to be reintroduced in the next year.

Earlier this week, EPCHS District 309 Superintendent Marjorie Greuter and Board President Andy Paulson led a community forum to gauge public opinion on the matter as they consider their options.

Joe Deacon recently spoke with Greuter about the community feedback they've received and where the process stands. This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Joe Deacon: What is the current status of East Peoria’s “Raiders” nickname and the Native American mascot? I understand there's been a little bit of a gradual shift toward not using the imagery, correct?

Marjorie Greuter: That's right. The current status is nothing has changed at this point. We're kind of in the first stages of finding out where community is and what the next steps might be.

Every year that I've been here, I've had one or two students that have brought up concerns. Then last year, when the legislation was introduced, the Board and I had a conversation about, “If this passes, what are we going to do? What are we going to do moving forward?” And at that time, there were too many other things on our plate: We had the flood going on; we had COVID; everything was just really crazy at that moment. So at that time, we just talked about, “We're not going to emphasize any of the imagery; we're not going to buy new uniforms that have any imagery on them at this point in time,” from a financial perspective, and then when the time was right, we would come back and revisit it.

So it came back up with our football games, and we had already eliminated what the band referred to as “the war chant” and some of those things, and that was noticed – a few people asked some questions. And in the interest of transparency, we thought having the forum would be a good way to let people in the community have a say, and be transparent that, “hey, we're looking at this.”

What were some of your takeaways from the forum, then? What did you hear from community members?

Greuter: It was a low turnout, in my opinion. We had 37 people (and) 18 spoke, which isn't bad; I really appreciate the ones that did come and the ones that did speak. But not having that many, it's really hard to get a true picture of the thoughts of the community. We had quite a few current students or recent graduates who spoke; all but two were looking for things to change. We had a couple of teachers, and then we had some city officials and then the head of our athletic booster organization.

So one of the takeaways is, this is just the beginning of the process. As everyone knows, this is highly controversial and highly debated, so we're going to take our time and we're going to do this the right way and do it transparently. Other takeaways, I think there are definitely some things we can improve on. One of the things that I heard is that there would be interest on the students’ part to have a course regarding Native American history, which we don't currently have. I mean, we have some courses that dabble in it here and there but we don't have a specific course, and that was one of the things in the legislation that didn't go anywhere that that's probably coming back. But there were students that were interested in providing that, no matter what happens, that that was something that might be interesting to them to take.

Another takeaway for me is, we did have someone from the Dayspring Native American United Methodist Church (Pastor Danira Parra) represented there, and her comments were more about forging relationships. I've had conversation with her on the telephone as well, and I think there's an opportunity maybe to work together with some of this. So, from that perspective, I would say with it being the very beginning of the process, I think people that are – and I don't want to generalize here, but I might generalize a little bit – I think people that are alumni that have a lot of community pride, do have concerns about changing anything about the school that they went to, and I understand that.

But I also think that there are students that are not happy with what's happening now. There's room to at least change some of our traditions, especially as they are surrounded during homecoming week. I think there's room to really learn some things here. There's room to forge some relationships. Then, the Board will have to make some decisions down the road, depending on how things go, (about) what our next steps are. We haven't had a chance, the Board hasn't … I haven't even sent my update to the board yet as to how the meeting went. But it's going to have to be Board conversations and kind of outlining, “Well, what is the next step we take, and how do we want to pursue going down this road?”

You touched on a lot of the other questions I had, but I do want to see if we can expand on them a little bit. So a lot of the students (who spoke at the forum) that you said have kind of voiced concerns about that they do want to see a change. How much of the student body opinion is going to factor in what steps are taken?

Greuter: They will definitely be a factor for sure. Having been in education for 34 years, I do know that students are associated with the organization for four years and then they are alumni. But it's just like, for lack of a better comparison, we may be looking at some facilities improvements. If we want to redo our family and consumer science kitchens, we're going to design that to be functional for 50 years, not just for the (students) that we have now. So I think that's important piece of this is: we want to be mindful not only of the students we have now, but we also need to consider the students of the future and the alumni that were represented and that are all over the country. So, yes, the student voice definitely matters as one piece of it, but I think there are a lot of interlocking pieces.

Like you said, some of the city leaders and other alumni have been pretty vocal in opposing the changes. Why do you think that they want to see things stay the same?

Greuter: I think it's seen as a source of tradition, a source of community pride. I think there's a concern, you know, our leadership is pretty conservative (and) I think there's a concern about what a lot of people refer to as “cancel culture.” I think our alumni are proud of where they came from and the education that they got – some of our alumni, I wouldn't say all of them – but I think that that's a piece of it for them. I hate to speak directly for them, but from some of the comments that were made, they see it as an honoring of (Native Americans) rather than being disrespectful. That's just a change in mind shift that we're seeing a little bit in the last few years.

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Tim Shelley
A door mat at East Peoria High School features a Native American image used as the logo representing the school's "Raiders" nickname.

In response to that, what have you heard from the members of Dayspring Church or other local Native American groups about how they see it?

Greuter: Like I said, the one that I have spoken directly with (Pastor Parra) is much more concerned about relationship and how do we form relationships, than she is about – and again, I am paraphrasing, I am not quoting her in any way; I don't want to misrepresent – but she's much more interested in forging relationships, and then preserving that, however that works. If that means that we keep a Native American image, but it comes along with students learning more about the Native American culture, etc., that might not be a bad thing. But again, that is a paraphrase from what she said (at the forum) and our conversation, and I don't want to misrepresent her in any way. But it definitely wasn't, “You must do X, Y or Z.” We have not had a conversation like that.

There were some people who were even advocating scrapping the Raiders nickname entirely because there are some negative connotations associated with that as well. Is that something that might be considered looking forward?

Greuter: You know, it's too early to tell. And I understand from a human perspective, that that could be a very negatively interpreted moniker. But I also would say, if we were to change imagery, there's nothing saying that what we would end up with would have to be a people group. For example, we have all kinds of animal mascots; could a raider be represented by a particular animal? I'm making this up as I go along, this is not in any type of plan. But I think if we were to stay with a people group, yes, those people would still have problems with the Raiders name.

I see. So you kind of mentioned that there had been legislation that was in the General Assembly and has stalled, but you anticipate that it may come back. Do you know what the status of that legislation is, and what would that legislation have required?

Greuter: It stalled; it basically died. I'm one of the co-chairs of Illinois High School District Organization, which is a group that lobbies when there's legislation that will affect high schools. We have some contacts that are very in-tune with what happens in Springfield, and I've been assured that at some point in time, probably after elections, that this is going to come back. Whether it will be in the same form as it was before, I don't know.

Basically, what it would have required was either a change of name or a change of, in our case, imagery – because we're not “the Indians,” we’re not “the Chiefs,” we’re “Raiders” – so it would have required a change, or a representative of the school, assuming the superintendent, would have to appear before a Native American Council within 500 miles, the closest one within 500 miles, to basically advocate for keeping it and why, and have that conversation. Then in addition to that – I don't know if it was one or two – courses in Native American history would have to be offered. So those things are doable, and if presenting in front of a Native American Council leads to relationship, then that's not necessarily a bad thing. But I think the idea was, the school would have to have the blessing of these council members in order to continue to use whatever mascot.

Where is the closest within 500 miles Native American Council, if you're aware?

Greuter: When I spoke with Pastor Parra, she mentioned there's one in Michigan, one in Wisconsin, one in Indiana, maybe. There were several, but it would be some travel time, for sure.

What would be the next steps moving forward?

Greuter: Our very next step is there has to be discussion at the Board level of what direction, what process we want to use. I mean, that really hasn't even been discussed at this point. We wanted to hear from the community; whether there's going to be a committee formed or … the Board President mentioned in the closing of the meeting that this is the first step and we've got to have board conversation and kind of define what the next steps are going forward. So, I think it would be premature for me to predict what the next steps are because I really don't know until we have that conversation.

So you don't have any estimation of when a change might occur, then?

Greuter: I really don't. I don't know if they want to table it until legislation comes out again; I don't know if they want to take this up right away. We haven't had that much conversation about it. The first step for them was, “Well, what does the community think?” So that's why we went with the forum, and we did that rather than like a survey, because we felt that a forum would indicate strong feelings, one way or another. If you have strong feelings, you're going to show up (and) you're going to speak, whereas a survey may be something that doesn't carry as much – you know, I can fill out a survey and not have super-strong opinions about something. So it may be a survey next; I really don't know. When we only had 37 people and only 18 spoke, is that going to be enough for the Board to say, “Yes, we've heard from the community.”? I don't know.

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