The Toledo School District might be able to keep its “Indians” moniker after all — that is, if an opinion from the Washington State Office of the Attorney General allows it.
The school board on Thursday night approved action to solicit a letter from the state attorney general’s office to see if the district’s boundaries fall within close enough proximity to Cowlitz tribal land, or any native trusts or tribal reservation, to be considered for an exemption clause included in recent legislation.
Although House Bill 1356, passed by the state Legislature in April, prohibits the use of discriminatory school mascots, logos or team names, a section within the law allows an exception for public schools located within Indigenous land or if the district neighbors a county with part of a tribal reservation or land trust.
The Cowlitz Indian Tribe’s administrative building, which is in Longview in Cowlitz County, neighbors Lewis County. The district believes there may be a case to be made with its proximity to prominent Cowlitz Native land.
All exemptions detailed require consultation from the tribe. School board member Heidi Buswell wrote in a letter to the board Thursday night that the Cowlitz Tribal Council has taken “recent action” to support the district’s effort in keeping its current mascot.
“This support is something tangible that we can present to the state as we move through the process,” she wrote.
The school board also tabled action Thursday night to select a name for rebranding. The “Riverhawks” name has floated to the top with majority student approval and looks to be the district’s frontrunning option as it moves forward with rebranding.
"Until we have an opinion from the attorney general, I'm recommending we hold off on making a decision on rebranding,” Superintendent Chris Rust said.
But time is ticking.
The Toledo district, and many others that sport Native names and mascots on their athletic gear and in school hallways, are required to have new mascots in place by Jan. 1 next year. Discussion at the board meeting focused around whether or not they believed the district could get a timely response from the attorney general on the matter.
According to a rough estimate, Rust said the rebranding effort is expected to cost their district anywhere from $75,000 to $100,000. And although state funds have been allocated to cover those costs, school districts may have to pay the money up front and later be reimbursed.
Rust said that Rep. Debra Lekanoff, D-Bow, has been vocal about how the goal of this bill is to spark discussion with tribes and engage in possible decisions to rebrand.
"At least, in the spirit of the legislation, we're already in line," he said.
The district this month also wrapped up a series of stakeholder discussions that included multiple meetings with Tribal members, Toledo alumni, district staff and the wider community. Rust estimates an overwhelming majority of stakeholders would like to keep the “Indians” mascot, even many local Tribal members, but there’s also been a growing sentiment around the community that the change might be inevitable.
Board Chair Monique Norberg said, because some Cowlitz Tribal members have shown support for keeping its moniker, it’s important they table a final decision on a new name until they can have the state’s attorney general weigh in on their exemption request.