Savannah mascot discussion

Michaela Lent, a 2011 Savannah High School graduate, spoke in favor of changing the school’s mascot during last month's Savannah R-III Board of Education meeting in the school’s gymnasium.

SAVANNAH, Mo. — One by one, 33 concerned citizens made their way to a lectern near the center of the gymnasium floor at Savannah High School Tuesday night and faced a seven-member committee with the fate of the school’s mascot in its hands.

Savannah R-III’s Board of Education meeting, moved from its usual host site at the district’s Central Office to accommodate for the large crowd, started with two hours of public comment from residents, graduates and outsiders — some from as far as Kansas — as the board weighed whether to change the mascot of a district that has for decades served as the home of the Savages.

The meeting kicked off with both a welcoming and warning from Board of Education President Stancy Bond, a professor at nearby Northwest Missouri State University, who thanked the largely unmasked attendees for their involvement in the meeting and told the crowd of roughly 300 that no decision on the issue or discussion among the board would take place Tuesday night.

And as a national reckoning over race and racism has publicly inched its way to the northwest corner of Missouri, just a day after the NFL’s Washington Redskins announced they would change their name, Bond asked the attendees to avoid the divisiveness that often comes with issues on race in America.

“Can we please be the community that comes together and finds a way forward?” Bond said.

But for the next hour and 55 minutes, attendees were largely divided. More than a month after a change.org petition sprouted, calling for a new mascot in Savannah and several weeks after a counter-petition emerged demanding the Savages moniker remain unchanged, the two sides of the issue clashed in three-minute intervals — the allotted time for each speaker — as the board watched and as cheers from both camps grew louder.

The first 12 attendees to stand behind the lectern, facing an all-white board with a predominantly white crowd gathered in the bleachers behind them, all spoke in varying degrees of support for changing the same mascot and nickname posted or painted in more than 20 different spots along the gym’s walls.

Several of the attendees who spoke, particularly in the meeting’s first hour, were of Native American descent. Michaela Lent, the event’s first speaker and one of the main organizers behind the #standupsavannah movement that brought the issue to the board’s attention, is of Cheyenne, Arapaho, Kickapoo and Kiowa descent.

Lent, along with Mark Kahbeah and Jason Thomas, both members of the Kickapoo tribe, joined nearly a dozen white speakers in the event’s early going, leading the argument for a new mascot while helping invalidate the claim from some who said the mascot wasn’t offensive to Native Americans.

“The mascot does not represent me. And it does not represent you,” said Kahbeah, whose four children attended Savannah R-III schools. “But it is hurtful and demeaning, to me, to my people, to family. … You guys need to be on the right side of history.”

Kahbeah, along with a few other of the 17 attendees who spoke out in support of a mascot, said he would be fine with the Savages moniker if the board moved to replace the school’s logo — a black and white depiction of a man with face paint and a feather tucked into his long, black hair.

Jeff Hovey, the 14th attendee to take the mic at the event and just the second to urge the board to keep the school’s mascot as is, said he doesn’t see a problem with the nickname or logo. Hovey is the man who started the counter-petition in late June after the petition calling for change gained traction.

Using just over two-and-half minutes of his three-minute time slot, Hovey, a 1987 Savannah High School graduate, said he was humbled by the support of his petition, which garnered nearly 2,500 signatures before the meeting. He said he loved the school’s nickname. He defended it.

“The name is not directed at one race,” Hovey said. “The logo was changed a few years back from the traditional Indian head to the modern (logo) … that is not defined as any particular type of people.”

While some members of the #standupsavannah camp showed a willingness to compromise on the particulars of a potential mascot change, others called for immediate action from the board despite Bond’s opening statement assuring no action would be taken at the meeting.

Dressed in a suit, Tyler Sigrist, the second speaker to face the board, called for a vote Tuesday night and said the decision to abandon the Savages nickname and mascot should be “easy” for the board. Moments later, Zach Beattie, another speaker advocating for a new mascot, said while the cost of reworking the school’s branding would be high, “admitting we need to change costs nothing.”

For more than 40 minutes to open the public comment session, residents, graduates, teachers and tribe members all made separate arguments for the same issue, pleading with board members of a school district they love to change the school’s nickname they can no longer stand.

“It’s time for things to change,” said Brian Zahnd, a pastor and third-generation Savannah graduate. “Just seven years ago, Dan Snyder, owner of the Washington Redskins said, ‘We will never … change the name.’ Yesterday they changed the name. Why? Because the times have changed.”

Others in Savannah don’t see it that way. After the initial wave of speakers who were in favor of changing the mascot, most of the meeting’s remaining 21 speakers — largely graduates, current students and Andrew County residents — felt differently.

Many of the arguments to the board in support of holding on to the controversial nickname centered on tradition and community pride.

Some speakers shared anecdotes from their time on Savannah High School sports teams, where they felt a sense of gratification wearing jerseys with the Savages epithet stitched across them. Some said the board has bigger issues — including the COVID-19 pandemic and severe budget cuts — to worry about. Largely, they refused to believe the nickname is offensive.

“These people — this community — is savage,” a resident named Cassie said as she gave an impassioned speech about the kindness and pride Savannah residents show while reminding the board they’re elected by Andrew County voters. “It is fierce. We are simple. We will come together as a tribe and we will brutally fight for this community and everyone who lives in it. That is what being a Savage is about.”

“I am a Savage and we are Savages,” she said.

While representatives of the #standupsavannah movement argued that Cassie and residents like her are ignoring the members of the community who are offended by the mascot, supporters from both sides spent much of the meeting citing the cost — both of changing the nickname or leaving it be.

Beattie, a former student, said that more than 1,400 communities around the country had made mascot changes in the last several decades, each finding the funding to do so. One resident who argued to keep the mascot as is, at least for now, said a name change could cost the district upwards of $300,000, money the district didn’t have even before state funding cuts brought on by the pandemic.

Bond, who first ran for the board of education in 2017, said funding concerns couldn’t be the reason to not move forward with a change. The cost of not changing the mascot could be greater down the road.

One resident, Diane Gould, was firmly against changing the mascot as of Sunday, she said. By the time she spoke at the meeting Tuesday, she reconsidered. She said a friend who is an official at a different area school district suggested other schools may not compete against Savannah going forward if there isn’t a commitment to change, a happening that could lead to negative media coverage on a national scale, she said.

For Gould, the cost doesn’t seem worth the fight anymore.

“I want us to consider cutting ties with the indigenous connection,” Gould said. “I want us to hesitate in making emotionally charged decisions that will possibly result in undesirable outcomes.”

Still, the direct cost is a hurdle for any change that might come to Savannah, and for Bond, the funding challenges are a point of frustration. Andrew County voters denied two separate tax levies recently that could have provided relief to the ailing district. Those same voters now lecturing the board on what is fiscally responsible doesn’t set well with Bond.

“That’s an interesting concept, isn’t it?” Bond said. “How could they support us as candidates, but yet not support the things we believe are important for our school?”

While several speakers asked the board to put the issue on the ballot, Bond said that won’t happen. She knows what the population of Savannah looks like — with more than 95 percent of the town’s 5,100 residents being white — a group that doesn’t reflect the full scope of the district’s impact regionally. She said the board was elected to make decisions. She does not intend on leaving the mascot issue up to the same voters who have twice refused to increase funding for the district.

Where that leaves the board remains unclear. While some advocates called for immediate action, Bond said it would be six months to a year before the issue is fully resolved. She expects the board to have a plan in place by October for how to proceed. And she expects her timetable to be divisive, though she does not expect to yield.

“If they want to work with us, they’ll work with our timeline,” Bond said.

After listening to speeches from 33 citizens that ranged from rehearsed to jumbled and from emotional to monotone, Bond said she doesn’t expect either camp to ultimately get its way. She doesn’t know how the board might vote, she said, but she expects compromise. She expects concessions from both sides — though few of the nearly three-dozen speakers seemed prepared to make any.

As the board entered a five-minute recess after close to two hours of public comment, all but less than a dozen of the meeting’s 300-something attendees filed out of the gym, leaving Bond and the board to manage a budget crisis with the mascot issue in their rearview mirror for the evening, but still very much ahead of them.

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