WAPAKONETA — Emotional pleas from those in favor and against changing the name of the Wapakoneta mascot were heard by the Wapakoneta School Board of Education at its monthly meeting Tuesday.
The issue has come to the forefront most recently with the NFL’s Washington Redskins removing its longstanding nickname earlier this month. The changing of the name has also received a lot of attention due to the rising racial divide that has gripped the country the past several months.
To accommodate the interested parties and hear the two sides, the board meeting was moved up an hour to Wapakoneta High School and broadcast to approximately 30 individuals in the school’s performing arts center.
Seven individuals were allowed to address the board with a five-minute limitations. To demonstrate how divisive and how deep this has become, at the meeting the board heard from two sisters with differing opinions. Michelle Bellman was for changing the name and her sister, Kristi Bellman-Klopfenstein, spoke against changing the name.
Bellman, a 2015 graduate, presented the board with a petition that had more than 2,400 signatures for the removal of the nickname and said it was time to make a change.
“Using the R-word is a derogatory slur and is a derogatory slang word, and in today’s society we do not use racial slurs because it is not appropriate,” Bellman said.
Bellman presented the board with comments from Ben Barnes, chief of the Shawnee nation and the Lake Erie Native American Council as well as descendents of Chief Blackhoof. She also read a number of comments of those against the usage of the mascot’s name.
Bellman encouraged the board to take up the task of opening a discussion and a dialogue to all parties involved to properly honor the Native Americans.
Bellman-Klopfenstein, a 2000 Wapakoneta graduate, countered by saying she was proud of the mascot and was raised a Redskin.
“Wapakoneta Redskins is why I am here tonight. It is a name that I have grown up with and now my children as well,” Bellman-Klopfenstein said. “It is a name with a proud tradition that reminds of our community’s heritage and rich in history.”
Bellman-Klopfenstein added that we celebrate other cultures with such events as Oktoberfest, St. Patrick’s Day and Cinco de Mayo.
“The point I am making is simple. The community and many communities around us have a rich history of celebrating our Native American cultures along with other cultures of descendants that once were in our area,” Bellman-Klopfenstein said. “We call ourselves Wapakoneta Redskins in honor of us. We dress in our school mascot’s team and sing the school song with pride.”
Ellen Engle, also in favor of the name change, pointed out the reputation of the city. She said having this name adds to that stigma.
“Everyone says that is in the past and we have gotten better,” Engle said. “We have gotten better but there is still the underlying issue in our town. … Our reputation precedes us. It means because of our past transgressions we are racists, and that perception needs to change. It is time to change that perception and it needs to start with the change of our mascot.”
Dan Havens, who played football for Wapakoneta in the 1950s, was adamantly opposed to the name change.
“I’m a Redskin and for somebody in Oklahoma or from the Shawnee tribe, I don’t get it,” Havens said. “I think calling ourselves Redskins, I think we are kind of honoring them and I really don’t understand it. I’m so upset with the whole deal I can’t see straight.”
Wapakoneta superintendent Aaron Rex said the board is always happy to hear from the public and will examine the issue but said he does not see a name change in the near future.
“I think the board is always willing to listen to people,” Rex said. “When you have a meeting like this you just never know how many people are going to come and exactly what they are going to say. I can tell you once The Lima News did a story Sunday with Ms. Bellman’s comments about changing the mascot we had 72 hours of people from all over that are former Redskins telling us they don’t want us to change it so I think if you look at the community of Wapakoneta and how people feel about the mascot, there is a lot of support to keep the name.”
Rex added that the school sees the mascot as a point of pride.
“People ask me what has to happen to make a change. One, the state would probably have to make a law that says no Redskins, or two, the community would have to overwhelmingly tell our school board that it needs to change. So unless one of those two things happens then we will remain the Redskins.”