A Tradition Isn't Always Worth Keeping
By Andy Kerr
Column #29 - Go to next column
Length: 750 words
Published: 28 August 1997, Wallowa County Chieftain
After the 1996, Los Angeles riots and before those coming next, President Clinton urged the nation to converse about race relations. Such is occurring in Oregon's Wallowa Valley. A courageous, compassionate, contemplative and unanimous—if politically unsophisticated—Enterprise School Board voted to drop the "Savages" as the mascot.
This remarkable event occurred in Wallowa County, where Chief Joseph and his Nez Perce band were routed by the Army in 1877. Their heroic attempt to reach Canada ended short of the border. The survivors were exiled, first to Oklahoma, then to reservations in Idaho and Washington.
It's one thing to rationally discuss sensitive racial issues, it's quite another to realize that you live with more racists, bigots, xenophobes and idiots than you care to admit.
Racists: "n. believers that race accounts for differences in human character or ability and that a particular race is superior to others."
Bigots: "n. ones who are strongly partial to one's own group, religion, race, or politics and are intolerant of those who differ."
Xenophobes: "n. persons unduly fearful or contemptuous of that which is foreign, especially of strangers or foreign peoples."
Idiots: "n. foolish or stupid persons."
(Dictionary definitions included, lest I be accused of mere name calling rather than characterizing people based on actions.)
A very rare Nez Perce living in the Wallowa Valley made an appeal to the board. Some members had already felt uncomfortable with the mascot and had heard coaches who felt uneasy playing across the Blue Mountains in Pendleton on the edge of the Umatilla Indian Reservation.
The initial reaction, both in and out of Wallowa County, was favorable. The forces of darkness were slow to coalesce but when they did, it was savage.
Savage: "tr.v. 1. to assault ferociously; 2. to attack without restraint or pity. n. 1. a person regarded as primitive or uncivilized; 2. a person regarded as brutal, fierce, or vicious; 3. a rude person; a boor."
Too many people are behaving as if it was 1897.
Our community's dark side was quiescent as the Bonneville Power Administration bought a local ranch as mitigation for wildlife losses from hydroelectric dams and gave it to the Nez Perce tribe to manage. Converting land use from livestock to wildlife is bad enough for some, but some also fear a casino, based less on gambling's social impacts, than on Indians making money.
The yahoos ("n. persons regarded as crude or brutish") hadn't reacted to the establishment of an annual pow wow and of a Nez Perce cultural center in nearby Wallowa, or to the inviting of the Nez Perce to participate in Chief Joseph Days in nearby Joseph.
These events have received favorable press, both in and out (New York Times and Parade) of the Wallowa Valley.
Two years ago, the Joseph parade included antique automobiles carrying Nez Perce in full regalia. Broadcasting live, the local radio station owner kept saying "Welcome back! Welcome home!" While his greetings were sincere and gracious, it's not the case that the Nez Perce have merely returned from a long vacation. While tribal members are visiting more—welcomed by most locals, it's not as if they are actually moving here.
Due to the whining, ranting and raving (look them up; I'm running out of space), the board is (we hope) in tactical retreat. They've granted a one-year stay of execution of the savage mascot while it works with the student body choose a new symbol.
For some, "tradition" is reason enough not to change something, be it segregation, prohibiting women the vote, child labor, or the Sambo's Restaurant mascot. Two years ago, local doctors called for ending boxing smokers ("n. informal gatherings of men"). Their arguments were more medical than moral—six-year-old skulls haven't fully developed and even mature skulls are inadequate protection against pummeling). The Lion's Club tactically retreated for one year. The arguments citing "tradition" are interchangeable with the present case.
The old guard blames outside agitation for this tumult, yet several with comparable residential pedigrees favor the change. This division is over tolerance, not length of residency.
When I moved here three years ago, a popular, refrain was "Now I know what Chief Joseph felt like. Newcomers are running us out too." Though contentious, this change is democratic. It is not driven by Army weaponry.
Change, even good change, can be hard. Recall the five stages of death: denial, anger, bargaining, grieving and acceptance. May the anger subside, the bargaining continue, and the grieving be short.