Graduation 2016 at Chowchilla Union High School was pretty normal Friday night – with one notable exception.
A student sang the national anthem and valedictorian Kelsey Prins compared her and her classmates’ high school experience to an exhilarating roller coaster. Students decorated their caps and bumped beach balls in the air. The audience cheered for the 211 graduates – some louder than others – as they received their diplomas.
But the cheers were loudest at the mention of “Redskins,” a name that stirs the pride of the entire community. The name will fade from campus by January 2017 due to a California law signed in 2015 banning Redskins as a mascot, nickname or logo.
Chowchilla is one of four high schools affected by the law. Tulare Union sent its last class off June 1 and Gustine High in western Merced County held its graduation Friday, the same night as Chowchilla. The senior class at Calaveras High in San Andreas graduates June 9.
“Everything is about to change,” said Prins, the Chowchilla valedictorian. “Change is natural: We change around a changing world.” This constant force came not only for the transitioning students but for the whole student body and the Chowchilla community at large, reeling from their forbidden pride in a prohibited mascot.
Graduates like Myranda Hitchcock designated her class – the 96th – “the last of our arrows.” To understand the inevitable shift, she made the name’s history and the reason for the law her senior project.
“There is so much hard proof, but my heart doesn’t want to believe it,” Hitchcock said.
Chowchilla is an alternative spelling for the Chauchila tribe, which used to reside in the area and whose members perhaps are buried under the town’s streets. For Principal Justin Miller, the name Chowchilla and the Redskins mascot is a way of saying “the Chauchilas were here.”
Miller, whose family traces four generations in Chowchilla, called this graduation sad for a community that takes so much pride in its high school’s mascot.. As for change, he said, “we’re going to wait until the last minute.”
In general, seniors said they were saddened that theirs is the last class of Redskins. “My sister is super sad she won’t be able to be a Redskin when she gets here,” graduate Keryn Grissom said.
Physics teacher and third-generation Chowchilla Union graduate Lindsay Surina expressed confidence in the school’s ability to find a new mascot and be proud of it, when the time comes.
Surina said she remembers the community her teachers and classes fostered and their formative influence on her decision to become a science teacher. She also remembers the strong feelings she associates with being a Redskin.
“We have such a strong hold on the Redskins, it’ll be hard to find something that makes us feel the same way,” Surina said. “But I think they’ll be proud of what they choose. We’ll find something. We are still going to be the town, and we will find our way back.”
Chowchilla is hanging on to the Redskins nickname until after it celebrates its centennial anniversary Oct. 7-9. It’s the school board’s job to have a new nickname in place by Dec. 31.
But on Friday night, the board members commemorated the mascot of their youth with graduation robes with “Redskins” newly embroidered on their backs.
Trustee Charlene Espinola said current students should have a greater say than alumni.
“It’s their future,” Espinola said. “We’ve had our time, and now we should let the students be involved.”
Some students said they want to keep with the Native American theme as much as is legally possible, while others want to forge a completely new path.
Graduate Kobe Nguyen, a baseball player, suggested Warriors because it retained the proud, fighting spirit of the Redskins mascot without the negative connotations.
Tulare still is wrestling with its choice. The Tulare Joint Union High School board is expected to select a new mascot June 23 from Tribe, Legends and Renegades. A committee of students, staff and community members settled on the three names in April, with Tribe as the top recommendation. Mascot choices may be on the agenda at the upcoming June 9 meeting as an information-only item.
When the Tulare board considered options in April, it voted to wait until after graduation to select a nickname. At least one board member expressed concern then that an American Indian theme such as Tribe could create problems similar to the current controversy.
Gustine’s school board voted unanimously in February to revert to the school’s original nickname, Reds. The first use of the Reds nickname for Gustine High occurred in 1913. It reflected the red and white school colors and bore no connection to Native Americans. However, the school abandoned the Reds in the 1930s as anti-Communist sentiments brewed.
Calaveras opted to go without a nickname – but is keeping the Native American theme in its logos.
Chowchilla Superintendent Ron Seals said pride in the school will sustain the graduates and rising high school students, regardless of the mascot.
“For those who have graduated, our traditions will stay in our hearts and minds,” Seals said. “It’ll be the same with the new mascot, too. The students will live, love and cherish that mascot for the rest of their lives.”