SAVANNAH, Mo. — A national reckoning over race and racism has publicly inched its way to the northwest corner of Missouri for the second time in as many months and has forced an upcoming Savannah R-III school board meeting — usually held in the district’s central office meeting room — to be relocated to the Savannah High School gymnasium.
Just over a month after a Black Lives Matter protest consumed the square surrounding the Nodaway County Courthouse, Savannah R-III officials moved the district’s Tuesday night meeting to the high school gym to account for the large crowd expected to converge on the Andrew County town as the school board hears public comment regarding the high school’s mascot.
The meeting will take place atop hardwood that has for decades played home to the Savages. Savannah High School alumnus Amanda Barr started a change.org petition calling for a change of the school’s mascot name and logo — a black and white depiction of a Native American — on June 6, the same day of the Black Lives Matter protest 30 miles north of the high school.
“Savannah R3's continued use of the Savage as a mascot creates a hostile environment for any student of color, but particularly students of Native background,” Barr wrote when she posted the petition. “It's time for that to end.”
More than three weeks after Barr’s petition, which has garnered close to 4,500 signatures, caught the attention of area residents and made its way onto the school board’s meeting agenda, a counter-petition calling for the district to keep the Savages moniker and logo popped up on change.org on June 29, amassing more than 2,000 signatures in the 10 days since.
The stage, now, is set for a face-off between the two sides in front of the district’s school board and potentially hundreds of the city’s predominantly white community members at 7 p.m. Tuesday night, as the NFL’s Washington Redskins and MLB’s Cleveland Indians both explore name changes in the national spotlight.
In Savannah, 11 different speakers are slated to present their thoughts to seven members of the board, all of whom are white. The board, though, won’t take action on the issue at the meeting and will instead wait for an upcoming work session in August to deliberate and vote.
“We have incredibly logical board members and as you do with any board, you want a mix of people, and we have board members that are highly-emotional,” Savannah R-III Board of Education President Stancy Bond said. “I think that we have a great combination on our board right now, and I think once that our board members hear all the facts and hear all the emotional arguments behind it, that they will make a good decision.”
Bond said she didn’t want to make light of the issue at hand, but that for the board, its timing at Tuesday’s meeting comes amid a slew of challenges. Bond and company are facing a minor budget crisis amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic after two tax levies that would have brought aid to the district were rejected by Savannah voters.
“There are lots of issues with the mascot, but there are lots of issues with the school district in general,” Bond said. “The school board definitely has a lot on our plate right now.”
Michaela Lent understands the school board’s process, but she wishes things were different. She wishes this issue — one that comes at a moment when the entire country, it seems, is having overdue conversations about racism — was an exception to drawn-out administrative processes.
Lent, a 2011 graduate of Savannah High School and a Native American, is of Cheyenne Arapaho, Kickapoo and Kiowa descent. She knew when she went through the Savannah R-III system, along with her five siblings, that the school’s mascot was offensive, but she didn’t have much of a voice back then. She wasn’t really politically active until recently when the Black Lives Matter movement gained nationwide traction.
As protests over the death of George Floyd broke out across the country, Lent said she felt like she wasn’t doing enough. She turned her attention closer to home, where she’d been embarrassed by her school’s mascot, and where she decided to help make a difference. Lent is one of the main organizers of the petition and movement — which now has a name and a website, both titled #standupsavannah. She’ll be the first of 11 speakers to face the school board Tuesday.
“It’s gonna be like two weeks (to) the day of the meeting that all of this started,” Lent said. “We’ve been preparing, we’ve been reading up. (The school board) should be doing the same. They should be well-prepared to comment on this. Because it is a really big issue and the entire community is getting involved with.”
“We can’t just do things the way that they’re supposed to be done just because that’s (the) protocol,” she added. “This is a bigger issue than that. There’s a lot changing in the world and people want to know what their decision is, what their thoughts on this are.”
The issue is closer to Lent’s heart than it is to most other members of the community. Growing up in County Club Village, Lent’s mother had the option to send her children to Savannah or to St. Joseph Schools. She opted for the small-town setting because she hoped it would lead to a better education for Lent and her siblings, but it was an education that came with a cost.
Lent said she experienced racism throughout her time at Savannah, in forms that ranged from microaggressions to overt taunts, some of which she said were brought on by the school’s mascot.
“If I were to have an attitude with someone, they’d say like, ‘Are you gonna scalp me?” Lent said, recalling her high school years. “Or ‘Where’s your tomahawk?’ Or asked if we still lived in teepees, and when it was raining, asked if I would do a rain dance to make it stop. It was just little taunts like that here and there all throughout high school.”
Her involvement with the petition and #standupsavannah movement has brought renewed harassment, Lent said, the kind she tried to avoid by staying quiet during her time in the Savannah R-III district. Lent said organizers who have spoken out have received backlash from residents on the other side of the issue, though she said lately support has drowned out the negative comments.
Still, having lived through what she’s lived through in Savannah, Lent doesn’t understand the other side of the issue. From Lent’s perspective, counter organizers have strayed away from the point surrounding the offensive mascot. They’ve made the issue about themselves, she said.
“It’s offensive to them for us to even bring it up,” Lent said.
The petition to keep the mascot, which sprouted up in the days after the original petition began to gain traction and landed itself on Savannah’s school board agenda, seems to be one built on a message of both community pride and unity.
Jeffrey Hovey, who started the change.org petition, called the Savage mascot “beloved” in the brief message he wrote on the website when he posted it. He disputed the notion that the term specifically refers to Native Americans, though Savannah’s mascot appears to be a Native American warrior.
“It has been an icon for our community for as long as most of us remember,” Hovey wrote. “A savage can be from any race or land. You may hear that it is racist ... but it has no bad intentions towards anyone or any race. Let's show them that we love, honor and want it to remain!”
Hovey did not respond to messages requesting an interview. Additionally, an interview request sent to Savannah Superintendent Eric Kurre went unfulfilled and Kurre did not respond to direct requests for comment.
Supporters of the petition to keep the school’s nickname and mascot left comments beneath the petition as they signed that ranged from prideful to offensive. Most of the commenters seemed to simply want things to stay as they were, citing the tradition that comes with the mascot. Some strayed further from the mascot issue and used the petition to provide commentary on America’s political climate.
“I don’t think we need to change,” wrote Tyler Huffer, from Savannah. “It has been with us for many many years. And once a Savage always a savage.”
“It’s part of Savannah’s Community!” Kristi Sandy wrote, though it’s logic like Sandy’s that Lent takes issue with.
Lent, who grew up not far from Savannah in an even-smaller Andrew County town, said she doesn’t understand why some counter-organizers can’t separate the city’s identity from the mascot she finds offensive. The same mascot that for Lent serves as an embarrassment is a point of pride for others, who Lent said don’t recognize the pain the mascot has caused and aren’t interested in being educated now.
As parts of the community rally around the mascot, Lent said it’s backward for residents to embrace a divisive, exclusive symbol.
“They can’t separate those two ideas,” Lent said. “The community is how they help each other and how they stand through these tough situations. If someone in the community says that this offensive and hurtful, I would hope that the other members of that community would hear them out.”
Lent said if the school board fails to act on the issue or votes against the change, organizers would take their grievance further up the ladder, though she hopes its resolved at the local level. Last May, Maine became the first U.S. state to completely ban Native American mascots from state-funded schools, and similar bills have emerged in legislatures across the country. Missouri isn’t one of them.
The divisive issue puts Bond, the school board president already dealing with budget shortfalls and a pandemic, in somewhat of a tough position, but she said she’s OK with that.
Bond, a professor at Northwest Missouri State University whose children are set to attend Savannah High School in the coming years, said she learned early on in her time on the board that she couldn’t make every member of the community happy. She knows that will still be true when the board votes sometime next month, but declined to say which way she would vote.
“While I understand the passion behind both sides of the issue, we have to give our due diligence to this issue to make sure that we know all the facts, we’ve heard all the stories,” Bond said. “Don’t give up on us. If you look at our history as a board for the last three years, you will see that we do take issues under advisement and we do make good decisions.”
Bond wouldn’t say how she thought the board might lean when the seven-member committee meets in August. She knows there will be a backlash, regardless of how the board votes. She first ran for school board nearly three years ago because she wanted to make a difference in her community, she said. Bond and the board will have the chance to do so next month.