Piqua BOE responds to mascot controversy

PIQUA — The Piqua City School District Board of Education recently responded to a plea to consider removing the school’s Native American mascot.

Area resident Courtney Denning, a 2006 Piqua High School graduate, with the help of eight other alumni and community members, constructed a letter outlining the reasoning behind the request. The letter was then distributed to board members.

“Imagine the following scenario,” the letter begins. “You and your family are forcibly displaced from your community. However, to honor your ‘fighting spirit,’ the invaders decide to name their school mascot after a name they assigned to you. You press to have the name changed because it upsets you, but you’re told that it honors you. Does it?”

Denning said she had been considering writing such a letter for years.

“I thought about writing a letter to the editor in 2018 after reading some news about the Washington football team and how they were asked by Native American groups to change their name,” she said. “I wrote the letter, but didn’t end up sending it.”

More recent local news coverage along with posts on social media from other Piqua alumni encouraged her to go through with it.

After completing the letter, Denning posted it online, encouraging other alumni and community members to sign it prior to sending it to the board.

“We got a total of 198 signatures,” Denning said. “There were grads from the ’60s up to very recent graduates who signed and we have people who have lived in Piqua for a handful of years and some who have lived here for over 40 years.”

The letter goes on to note that decades of studies have shown derogatory “Indian” sports mascots have serious consequences for Native Americans, most notably for young people, and that according to the U.S. Department of Justice, Native Americans “are more likely than people of other races to experience violence at the hands of someone of a different race.”

“Regardless of the original intent, the mascot is a disrespectful caricature of Native Americans. To objectify an entire group of people based on their identity and turn them into a symbol is wrong,” the letter states. “We are not saying that using this mascot makes a person racist — our purpose is not to cast judgment. What we have now is an opportunity to truly honor the Native American history of Piqua by respectfully retiring a mascot that is a caricature of Native Americans.”

In a joint statement, board members responded to the letter’s request by stating the board “has not directed the superintendent to engage in the process of changing our identity.”

“As with all of our work, we strive to be intentional about how we address issues such as this,” the statement reads. “Like much of Ohio, Piqua has a strong connection to Native American history. Our city’s name, Piqua, is derived from an Indian legend meaning, ‘He has come out of the ashes.’”

According to the statement, the first known reference to a Piqua team being called “Piqua Indians” is 1928.

“(The name) goes well beyond just the school district, as many non-district community sports programs and other local entities have references to the Native American culture,” the statement reads. “Because of its long history and strong connections to so many organizations, it would be important to have a great deal of community input if it were to ever change.”

Many local citizens have shared that they feel changing the name would be “detrimental” to the identity of the city of Piqua, according to the board’s statement, adding that, even so, the board regularly discusses the topic of being respectful to the school name.

“Our last discussion on this topic was at a work session last November. As a continuation of that meeting, a discussion was held with a Native American tribal member who provided us with ideas on how we and our fans can continue to strive to be respectful,” the statement reads. “Piqua fans who have communicated directly to us have shared that they have great respect for our name. To that point, the guidance we have sought and any changes we have already implemented have put us in a better position to be more respectful of our school name.”

Additionally, during this November board work session, the decision was made to retire the Indian mascot at sporting events beginning this fall.

“This decision was not made because students in this role were intentionally being disrespectful,” the statement reads. “The board just didn’t want a student in Native American attire to unintentionally misrepresent the culture. Since our community has embraced the legacy of our first inhabitants, we are striving to be respectful and look at this as a historic connection to our past.”

Two additional petitions, not connected to Denning’s letter, have appeared on social media via Change.org within the past few months regarding the mascot issue.

One, with 749 signatures as of press time, is in support of keeping the Piqua Indians mascot, and another, with 828 signatures, supports retiring the mascot.