Cindy Reeves grins from ear to ear as she strikes a proud pose in front of the hazy purple backdrop. She is decked out in her drill team best: bright white boots and gloves, a cute white and purple blouse and a pleated white skirt.
It isn’t just the colors of the outfit that make it clear Cindy is representing her hometown Port Neches-Groves High School in southeast Texas. Plenty of other bright-eyed white teenage girls on drill teams sport purple and white getups across the country. The giveaway that Cindy is a Port Neches-Groves Indianette is the giant feather poking out from behind her head.
Cindy and her fellow Indianettes are just one part of the support structure for the Port Neches-Groves Indians football team. The Indianettes perform halftime routines at The Reservation — formally named Indian Stadium — while the student body-elected Indian Spirit mascot dances around in purple face paint and an elaborately feathered and faux-furred costume to fire up the admiring crowd as they sing the school fight song “Cherokee” in unison, always ending with the refrain:
“Scalp ‘em, Indians, scalp ‘em!”
Cindy Reeves – now Cindy del Valle (her married name) — was an Indianette for nearly two years before she graduated from PN-G High School back in 1975. Forty-five years later, she’d still fit right in if she dug out her old feathered headband and wore it to a Friday night football game, as the Indianettes, the Indian Spirit and the PN-G Indians are still kicking to this day.
The cities of Port Neches and Groves continue to support their Indians with pride, and the majority of area residents don’t see anything wrong with the fact that their mostly white communities still wrap themselves in Native American imagery in the year 2020.
“It was high school. It was all about us, and having this camaraderie,” del Valle says now. “I don’t recall anybody back then talking any politics, or how the world was, or did we think this was right that we were doing it and does that ‘Scalp ‘em!’ part bother you? We just absorbed it all and went with it.”
As it turns out, there are quite a few people bothered by it — a lot of them Native Americans living across the country. Richard Abourezk, a member of the Oglala Lakota Nation who grew up on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, was told about the PN-G Indians by Michael Mason, his white brother-in-law from southeast Texas. When Abourezk saw examples of PN-G High School’s chants and traditions, he thought they bore a striking similarity to the mocking chants and gestures hurled at his high school basketball team by opposing players and fans.
“They would do the same things to us, but it was meant to be racist,” Abourezk says. “It was meant to degrade us… it’s just not something a kid should have to endure.”
The PN-G Indians have become the latest target of the online #NotYourMascot movement, which calls for sports teams to do away with Native American-inspired mascots and traditions that they consider racist acts of cultural appropriation. In early July, the Cherokee Nation jumped into the fray by formally requesting that PN-G High School do away with the Indians name and all associated traditions. On Monday afternoon, the National Congress of American Indians — America’s oldest and largest social welfare organization representing Native Americans — also reached out to the leaders of Port Neches-Groves High School via email to explain their organization’s belief that Native American sports mascots perpetuate “the racist view that Indians are uncivilized and uneducated” and should therefore be replaced.
From the Washington Redskins’ decision to finally change their name to the ongoing debate at The University of Texas over the racist origins of the school’s fight song and all the way down to small-town southeast Texas and Port Neches-Groves High School, it’s undeniable that American sports teams and the organizations they’re part of are in the middle of a public reckoning over allegedly offensive aspects of their team identities. This increased reexamination of American sports imagery has clearly been inspired by the resurgent Black Lives Matter movement, which has heightened the number and volume of conversations about racial sensitivity over the past several months.
These discussions aren’t just limited to sports teams, and have even reached the farthest corners of the galaxy; NASA recently announced they’ve removed the racial stereotype-inspired nicknames “Eskimo Nebula” and the “Siamese Twins Galaxy” from their agency’s lexicon.
It’s common to see a flood of defensive comments from PN-G Indians supporters on social media posts speaking out against their mascot, some of which can get pretty vulgar. The comment section of one widely shared Facebook post that called the school’s Indian mascot racist was full of such remarks: “Quit being little crybaby bitches! Fucking pussies,“ “Sit on totem pole and rotate,” “Texans don’t like interference from liberals” and “Why don’t you get a life snowflake?” were just a few choice gems. Other Indians defenders mocked their critics by invoking President Trump with cries of “Trump 2020!!!” and “Trump is your President and will be for 4 more years!!!”
“With the current state of the world being brought into it, the biggest thing I’ve heard is people being called snowflakes, and wanting to be too politically correct, so it’s a lot of this being made into a political thing rather than an empathy thing,” says a current PN-G High School student opposed to her school’s mascot who requested to remain anonymous to avoid backlash from family and area residents.
In del Valle’s view, most Port Neches and Groves locals feel like the assault on their mascot is just one more example of out of touch liberals trying to tell them how to live their lives.
“It’s more than just the school,’ she says. “It’s the culture of the area as well, which is why we see that being fought against so hard.”
Why Did Port Neches-Groves Choose Indians as Their Mascot?
Port Neches and Groves are both small cities in Jefferson County that basically sit right on top of each other, so it can be hard to tell where Port Neches ends and where Groves begins without a map handy. The petrochemical industry is a big employer for both cities thanks to the multiple major manufacturing plants located in the area. Port Neches has a population of nearly 13,000, and almost 16,000 people live in Groves.
According to U.S. Census data, no one who identifies solely as Native American resides in either city. The Census also reveals that 76.1 percent of Port Neches residents and 66.2 percent of Groves residents identify as white but not Hispanic or Latino, while 13.1 percent of Port Neches residents and 25.4 percent of Groves residents say they’re Hispanic or Latino. The most recently available Texas Education Agency demographic statistics for PN-G High School show that a miniscule 0.2 percent of students were Native American as of 2018.
The school that eventually became Port Neches-Groves High School was founded in 1925. That year, a student committee was appointed by the superintendent to pick a mascot and school colors. Why did they choose Indians as their mascot?
No one remembers.
Other nearby cities didn’t have Native American mascots; Nederland was represented by a bulldog and Beaumont High School had the King Lion. The student committee that chose the Indian mascot likely wasn’t aware that six burial mounds of Native Americans from the Attakapas tribe used to sit where Port Neches stood, as the mounds and all other evidence of their village had been cleared out by settlers decades prior.
High school football is part of the local lifeblood in Port Neches and Groves, as it is in small towns across Texas and especially in rural southeast Texas. If football is a local religion — and it is — then Easter Sunday would be the annual Mid-County Madness game between the PN-G Indians and the Nederland Bulldogs, which routinely fills up all 13,500 seats at The Reservation. The longstanding matchup between the two teams is considered one of the top high school football rivalries in all of Texas.
Multiple generations of families who were born, raised and remained in Port Neches and Groves still have tremendous school spirit. A popular refrain from locals is that PN-G’s use of the Indians name along with other traditions like the fight song and the costumes worn by students are all intended to honor Native Americans, specifically the Cherokee.
For decades, residents and school leaders would frequently point to an “Ambassadors of Goodwill” certificate given to the school by former Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Ross Swimmer in 1979 as evidence to support their claims of honoring Native Americans.
Former PNGISD Superintendent Rodney Cavness pointed to the Goodwill certificate as proof that there was nothing wrong with the Indians name and mascot back in 2015, when Adidas publicly offered free design work to any high school with a Native American mascot who wanted a new one. “Changing it would be tapering down to political correctness of leftist extremists and we’re not going to do that here,” Cavness said at the time.
Chris Presley graduated from PN-G High in 2008.
Photo by Donziela Young
“It’s really hard for them to fathom having to change it, because they’ve never seen it as disrespectful,” says Chris Presley, an artist in Beaumont who attended Port Neches-Groves Independent School District schools from sixth grade until his high school graduation in 2008.
Presley still looks back fondly on his years as an Indians football player from seventh grade through his freshman year at PN-G High School. He always thought that the amount of school spirit in the area “was a little weird,” but didn’t understand that his school’s traditions could be considered offensive until a few years ago. He now believes his alma mater should get rid of its mascot.
“I love my community, and I want to challenge them to think about this and try to grow from it, and try to see things from a different perspective,” Presley says. He counts being asked to reconsider the appropriateness of the PN-G Indians by his friend Michael Mason as one of the main reasons he came around on the issue.
Mason moved back to his hometown of Beaumont just down the road from Port Neches and Groves in 2011. He was later joined by his wife Teresa Baker — a Native American artist of Mandan and Hidatsa descent born on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation in North Dakota — after she finished graduate school in San Francisco.
One day in 2015, Mason brought home a local magazine with a white teenage girl in a massive purple and white headdress on the cover, which was Baker’s first exposure to the PN-G Indians. “I couldn’t believe it. I was just dumbfounded,” she says.
The two were mortified after they read up on all the school’s traditions based on Native American imagery, as Mason had no idea about the mascot and traditions of nearby PN-G High School. Baker was especially flabbergasted, as she felt like the school was belittling her heritage whether intentionally or not. “It kind of broke my heart,” Mason says.
“I as a Native person really strongly hold sacred my beliefs and my culture and our traditions, and it’s a real thing. It’s real. It’s not a mascot, it’s not play. It’s not a football game, it’s actually real life,” Baker says. “And so how do you explain that to someone who doesn’t have any understanding of your culture?”
“I know that they don’t think of it as a mockery, and that’s where things become really tough,” Baker says, “because I’ve heard a lot of language from the folks in that area saying ‘This is an honor, this is tradition.’ But I don’t see a real education on their part of our actual culture.”
Inspired by his wife’s anguish, Mason decided to get involved in online advocacy against PN-G High School’s mascot. He sought more feedback from Native Americans who had spoken out against other Native American mascots, which is how the PN-G Indians were put on the radar of Abourezk, Mason’s brother-in-law. Mason wrote to the Cherokee Nation at the time and asked them to speak out against the PN-G Indians, but it didn’t result in any formal public statement from them.
Mason shared a new online petition asking PN-G to change their mascot at the beginning of July 2020. It was shortly after the petition began to pick up steam that Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. sent a letter to the PNGISD school board and current superintendent Mike Gonzales that urged the school district “to reconsider its school traditions that are premised on Cherokee Nation” and argued that the school’s mascot and associated iconography “perpetuate inaccurate misconceptions of Native American culture.”
Hoskin specifically revoked the school’s 1979 Goodwill certificate, and asked PN-G High School to do away with the mascot and all associated traditions that draw from Native American imagery.
Anti-Native American mascot activists rallied around Hoskin’s letter. They began to cite it frequently in online posts sharing their latest petition, which has now received over 137,000 signatures from people calling for PN-G High School to pick a new mascot.
Gonzales wrote in a public letter posted on Facebook in early July that even though Hoskin’s letter revoked the school’s “Ambassadors of Goodwill” designation, the call as to whether or not to continue to use the Indians name would be made based on the wishes of area residents.
“It is important to remember that our PNG schools belong to the PNG COMMUNITY and any future decisions on this topic will also belong to the community,” Gonzales wrote. He expressed frustration that “our students, staff and community have come under criticism and ridicule for the 1925 decision to choose the Indian as a mascot,” which he said was ironic given that opponents of the Indian mascot say that they’re trying “to create tolerance and acceptance.”
PN-G Athletic Department Says No Change is Needed
Neither Gonzales nor PN-G High School Principal Scott Ryan responded to interview requests from the Houston Press for this story, and neither did multiple men who played the role of Indian Spirit during their high school days and one former Indianette who had written on Facebook in defense of her school’s traditions.
If Gonzales intends to let the PN-G community decide the mascot’s fate, it probably won’t be going anywhere anytime soon. A Beaumont Enterprise online poll conducted in July 2020, just days after Chief Hoskin sent his letter to PNGISD, found that 72.7 percent of 12,547 respondents voted against getting rid of the Indian mascot.
Pro-Indians sentiment from Port Neches and Groves residents abounds on Facebook any time the mascot controversy is brought up. Locals often take up a defensive posture and tend to paint the mascot’s detractors as out-of-towners who should mind their own business. “From the outside looking in, you can’t understand it. And from the inside looking out, you can’t explain it,” read one widely shared Facebook post in defense of PN-G High School.
The PN-G Athletic Department seems determined to hang on to the Indian mascot at all costs, lest they acquiesce to what they likely view as a rising chorus of oversensitive whiners. On July 9, the official PN-G Indians Twitter account retweeted a post from Peter Medlock, offensive coordinator for the PN-G football team.
“The notion that “being offended” makes your opinion or feelings correct/valid is one of the greatest lies ever told and damaging to be believed,” Medlock tweeted.
While PN-G Indians defenders say their traditions are all in good fun, the country’s leading organization of psychologists has warned about the negative impact Native Americans mascots can have on children for years now.
In 2005, the American Psychological Association called for all Native American mascots used by schools and sports teams to be immediately retired due to their findings that these mascots and the traditions that come with them tend to establish a hostile learning environment for Native American students by affirming simplistic and negative stereotypes about Native American culture.
The harm isn’t limited to Native American students: The APA concluded that use of Native American mascots “undermines the educational experiences of all communities-especially those who have had little or no contact with Indigenous peoples.”
So Who Is the Indian Mascot Representing?
Abourezk believes that lack of exposure to Indigenous and Native American culture is a big reason why so many Port Neches and Groves residents don’t see any issue with their school’s mascot.
“I can’t think of any other race that would say that they are offended, that this is a mockery of our culture, and then have the people who are doing it look the other way,” Abourezk says. “It’s almost like a trophy, because non-Natives who use our culture as a mockery, they do it because they can.”
Mason agrees that there’s a double standard at play. “If it was a black mascot, I think a lot of people would know no way can we do that…but when it comes to somebody in a headdress, it’s okay,” he says.
Baker and Mason both live in California now, and Mason is still active in raising awareness about the mascot debate on social media. They’re both hopeful that PNGISD could turn the current controversy into a teachable moment for Port Neches and Groves residents by deciding to finally retire the Indians name and traditions. “This is an opportunity to get on the right side of history,” Baker says.
The anonymous PN-G student wishes her community would embrace that opportunity, but isn’t holding her breath. “They think it’s going to tear apart PN-G. I wish people could see it as an opportunity to come together,” she says.
These days, del Valle is long gone from southeast Texas, having moved to the Dallas area in her twenties to study nursing at Texas Woman’s University in Denton. She’s lived in North Texas ever since, and credits her introduction to people from a wider variety of cultures and races than she was exposed to in her home town of Groves as the starting point for questioning the traditions she took part in at PN-G High School all those years ago.
She doesn’t regret being an Indianette, per se — in her opinion, she was just a naive kid who was failed by a school system that didn’t properly educate their pupils about racial sensitivity and the harms of cultural appropriation. Del Valle is less optimistic than Baker about the chances of PNGISD finally caving in to the pressure they face to say goodbye to the Indians name for good.
She sees Gonzales’s decision to defer to the wishes of community members as an attempt to pass the buck and doesn’t think the national discussion around insensitive sports mascots will break through to these two cities that are so thoroughly stuck in their ways.
“I’m from there. I understand the people from there. I get where they’re coming from, but when we choose to open our minds and listen to other cultures, we learn so much more,” del Valle says.
“If they’re building their whole community around one mascot that doesn’t even pertain to who they are,” she continues, “I feel bad for them.”