A Utah town parents group and the Navajo Nation found common ground in their opposition to the "Red Devil" mascot of Springville High School, but the majority of the community sees nothing sinister in the symbol.
Controversy over the school's mascot has been brewing for months, stirred mostly by a citizens group, Parents for Mascot Review, which objected to the figure on the grounds that it presents the devil and evil as a symbol of the school.
"As a prominent symbol of a public high school, the 'Red Devil' does not represent the views and needs of our students or our community," said Dale Munk, a committee member of the group. "It's a universal symbol of evil. This community tends to be religious in nature, and we feel a 'Red Devil' has no place in our school."
Those in the community who opposed the change said the mascot is just an innocent symbol and that students see through the more sinister connotations of the word. The Springville High School Web site has both a seal that displays a traditional gaunt devil's face and a smaller, playful winking figure in red sneakers that looks like a toddler in a devil's costume.
Some supporters of the mascot described the controversy as a struggle between the community's longtime residents and newcomers who had no respect for the history of the town.
The mascot, which came from the name of the company that laid the foundation for the district's original high school, Red Devil Cement Co., was supported by 76 percent of the people who voted in a non-binding referendum on the issue Tuesday, the results of which were announced Wednesday evening at a meeting of the Nebo School District board.
"There's good people on both sides of this issue," Nebo School District Superintendent Carl Nielson said when asked about the referendum. "We just thought we should let the people decide."
The board then voted 3-1 to keep the mascot. Support for keeping the mascot was overwhelming at Springville High School, where 92 percent of the 1,030 students and 87.5 percent of the 80 faculty members who voted wanted to keep the mascot.
Neilson said the mascot would be changed slightly to make it less sinister.
‘Welcome to Hell’
Munk said parents, many of them Mormons, have objected to their children wearing shirts bearing school mottos related to the mascot, such as "100% Devil," and do not like seeing signs around the school saying "Wrestle With the Devil" and "Welcome to Hell."
"Unfortunately, if you give young people a devil motif to decorate around, you run into trouble like that," Munk said.
The Navajo Nation only got involved when one of the members of Parents for Mascot Review contacted it about an unsigned, handwritten letter on the tribe's stationery that the group had received, according to Merle Pete, a spokesman for Navajo Nation President Kelsey Begaye.
It's a mystery where the letter came from, Pete said, and the Navajos decided it would be best to clarify their position, though he said that in general the nation had not gotten involved individually in any of the many American Indian mascot disputes across the country.
"We basically explained that we are opposed to anything that makes reference to 'red devil,' which is a term that is offensive to Native Americans for obvious reasons," Pete said.
At first the Navajos, who do not live near the northern Utah community, did not want want to become involved in the Springville school's debate, but decided it was important to let their objections to the term be known, Pete said.
"As president of the Navajo Nation, I wish to note that the use of the term 'Red Devils' lends or conveys the immediate opinion of assertion of offensive racial commentary," Begaye wrote in a letter to the Nebo School District. "The term 'Red Devils' elicits immediate negative connotations that may be offensive to some individuals, particularly Native Americans, including members of the Navajo Nation."
A Double Standard?
Objections to school and professional sports team mascots that were described as racially or ethnically offensive were once widely dismissed as trivial, but over the last decade the movement has gained steam. Hundreds of schools and colleges have changed their mascots from ones that were called offensive to more neutral ones.
Some universities have even taken the step of deciding not to schedule games with schools that still had mascots considered ethnically, religiously or racially insensitive, unless those schools happened to be in their athletic conference.
In California, the Legislature is considering a bill that would make it the first state to ban American Indian-related team nicknames and mascots. The bill could be expanded to include mascots considered offensive by other ethnic groups as well.
Even in its more narrow form, some 180 schools would be forced to change their nicknames and mascots.
The question is often raised by those who downplay the mascot issue: Why is it all right for a team to be called the Vikings, Celtics or Fighting Irish and have a mascot that could be offensive to Scandinavians or Irish, but not all right for a team to use an American Indian name, even if the mascot figure seems to offer a positive image?
While some groups that fight to rid schools of Indian nicknames say the reason is that the Vikings or Celtics were named by communities largely comprised of members of those ethnic groups, even that argument has been tossed aside by some schools.
California's San Juan Capistrano schools dropped their Crusader nickname and mascot, though the community is overwhelmingly Christian, after a Muslim group that lived in the district raised objections.
For members of Parents for Mascot Review, the question is a symbol they say is offensive to the majority of the community.
"Most of the people in Springville and Mapleton are active, practicing Christians; they believe in a literal Satan who is not a mythical creature but a being with real and potent influence upon all of us," the group said in a statement. "The Red Devil makes light of this being and mocks the beliefs of many community members."
Not enough, though, to force the board to cast off tradition.