COTTAGE GROVE - It may have begun as a rumor, but now it’s officially a controversy.
Thursday, members of the District 833 American Indian Parent Committee urged the South Washington County School Board to remove an Indian head mosaic at Park High School. The artwork was installed in 1965 in the east part of the main hallway near the school gym.
They spoke during the public comments portion of the board’s semi-monthly meeting.
“We would like to make it clear that this image has no place in a public school where children learn,” spokesperson Janice Erickson said in a prepared statement. “While people think they are honoring our indigenous people and culture, there is overwhelming evidence that these caricatures and stereotypes actually damage our indigenous families, students and community.”
Erickson said 350 students in District 833 self-identify themselves as Native Americans.
Last week, word spread on social media that the district would remove the mosaic over spring break.
District 833 spokesperson Shelly Schafer said there are no such plans. However, she said they were in the very early stages of evaluating whether the mosaic should stay. That may have been the source of the online rumors, which caught them by surprise, she said.
“We had gotten some concerns from the community about the cultural sensitivity around the mosaic,” she said. “We are looking into researching that and looking at all possibilities. Ultimately our goal is to ensure that every student who walks through that door feels welcome.”
In 1994, Park changed the name of its sports teams from the Indians to the Wolfpack. The move was part of a national reckoning over the use of Native American imagery in team logos and mascots.
Petitions have sprung up online in favor of keeping the mosaic, which supporters contend is part of the school’s history. It honors American indians, they said. Some claimed there is an unwritten policy among students not to step on the mosaic.
Diane Schueller of Cottage Grove started the “Save Our Mosaic” Facebook group, which has 36 members.
Schueller, who did not attend Thursday’s meeting, became emotional as she talked about what the mosaic means to her and other Park graduates.
“I just feel after 50 years it’s become a piece of art,” Schueller said. ”I understand why they don't’ want it there, but it's a part of history. If we take everything away someday no one’s going to know why these mascots were taken away and they’ll repeat it.”
But Tiffany Sedillos, a member of the American Indian Parent Committee who addressed the school board, choked up as she described her distress at the use of the phrase “the Indian,” in the online debate over the mosaic.
“It refers to the term ‘Indian’ as a thing, as a non-person, as a costume that anyone can wear and put on and take off,” said Sedillos, who has two boys enrolled in the district. “My children are not things. They’re people who deserve to be treated like people. They should not be compared to pieces of tile on a floor.”
A similar debate over the fate of the historic Red Rock at Newport United Methodist Church resulted in a recent announcement by Methodist Bishop Bruce Ough that they would return the Red Rock to Minnesota Dakota communities, who consider it sacred. Some Newport resident members have expressed their desire to have the rock remain in the community.