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Tampa high school does away with Native American mascot and ‘mocking’ traditions

A wide, brick building displays a Native American chief's head with yellow skin and a green, feathered headdress.
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Chamberlain High School expects it will need $17,000 to replace exterior and interior signage depicting its recently retired "Chiefs" mascot.

In a student-run survey, 64% of Chamberlain High School students voted to change the mascot. But only about 30% of the student body participated.

Chamberlain High School will drop its “Chiefs” nickname and Native American mascot.

The decision was handed down by the Hillsborough County School Board Tuesday, which voted 5-1 in favor of a recommendation by Chamberlain’s student government to remove the imagery, choosing it over a petition to keep the mascot that garnered more than 6,000 signatures.

Students gave a presentation to the board on how they decided to do away with the mascot. The student government spoke with the alumni association and with a Title VI parent group, and also ran a survey.

About 33% of students participated in the survey, which was open for two weeks. Of those, 64% were in favor of changing the mascot.

Chamberlain principal Jake Russell said he was uncomfortable with some of the school's traditions, such as students wearing a traditional Native American headdress and imitating ceremonial dances.

“I don’t know a way to keep the Chiefs if our students are offended by it,” he told the board.

The latest decision continues earlier changes. In 2018, Chamberlain took steps to move away from some of the school’s homecoming traditions. Russell said he was instructed by then-superintendent Jeff Eakins to “clean those things up.” Working with the district’s Title VI office, images and costumes were altered to be more culturally sensitive.

This time, student government representatives said the Chamberlain Legacy Alliance alumni group wanted to keep the mascot and traditions, saying they see them as honoring native people. Members of the alumni group even threatened to pull support from the school if they went through with the changes.

Cinda Huntley, a Chamberlain alumna who graduated in 1965, spoke in favor of keeping the status quo during the meeting’s public comment.

“Perhaps we are not teaching the students of today how important lessons learned from the past affects their future,” she said. “The ‘Chiefs’ symbol is not just a picture — it is what represents leadership and traditions.”

The Hillsborough County School District's Title VI Native American Parent Advisory Council argued that the school traditions were performed “as mocking stereotypes of native people.”

School Board Meeting Tuesday June 21, 2022

The mascot was chosen before the Native Americans Programs Act of 1974 when Chamberlain was a predominantly white school.

School board Vice Chair Henry Washington drew comparisons to Quaker Oats dropping Aunt Jemima on its packaging because of racial stereotypes.

“Things have changed, times have changed,” he said. “And people don’t like change.”

Fellow board member Nadia Combs joined Washington in voting for the change, saying she wasn’t there to argue “political correctness,” but to listen to students.

“They can’t rally around a mascot because they don’t have a mascot,” she said. “They have a name, but they don’t have a mascot.”

Tampa Mayor Jane Castor, a Chamberlain alumna who graduated in 1977, said she opposed the name change during an affordable housing press conference Tuesday before the school board meeting.

"My personal opinion on that is that it should stay the Chamberlain Chiefs. Chief is indictive of a prestigious position," she said. "I appreciate the democratic process that they're allowing students and alumni in the community to weigh in on that, but my personal vote on that would be to remain a Chamberlain Chief. Always a Chamberlain Chief."

Russell said a bronze statue of a chief would stay in the halls even if the mascot is changed to remind people of the school’s history. But signage and language would change around the school and its sports buildings.

He said he was wary of giving a timeline for the changes, but added that the process will start when students return for the 2022-23 school year.

The school estimates it will need about $50,000 to replace signage, uniforms, stadium banners and more.

Jack Prator is the WUSF Rush Family Radio News intern for summer of 2022.