Wapakoneta City Schools use this motto as one of its ways to motivate its students.
Be better has also been motivation for Michelle Bellman and a host of Wapakoneta alumni to speak out against Wapakoneta’s current mascot nickname.
Bellman, a 2015 Wapakoneta graduate, is a member of a campaign of alumni and supporters that is expected to speak to the Wapakoneta School Board about the name change and open up a dialogue about it at its monthly board meeting Tuesday. The meeting is scheduled at 1102 Gardenia Drive at 7 p.m.
Earlier this month, superintendent Aaron Rex sent out a statement stating that Wapakoneta is not looking to make a name change at this time.
At the meeting Bellman will be presenting a petition with more than 2,000 signatures in favor of a name change. Bellman also wants to introduce letters from the Lake Erie Native American Council and the National Congress of American Indians which are willing to offer their objections as well as those of living descendents of Chief Black Hoof, the leader of the Shawnee tribe who died right before it was forcibly removed from Wapakoneta, and Ben Barnes, chief of the Shawnee tribe.
“I am going to bring up the Wapak slogan, the “Be Better” slogan, and I think that is where we have to be better as a town,” said Bellman, who is currently a graduate student at Bowling Green Statue University. “We get a lot of flack for having a lot of supporters who don’t live in Wapakoneta anymore with me being one of them but Wapak is always going to be my home and for a lot of us it is going to be our home, if not currently, and you just want your home to be better especially when you have all the information given to you which we have now.
“We need to have these uncomfortable conversations. … I know there are hateful people but I think no one wakes up and says I am going to be hateful today. It is for people who might feel that this is targeted towards them or that they feel a sort of unease about changing the name or about having these conversations and to just think of what our town can be. We don’t want to repeat history, we want to learn from it and have Wapak be better.”
Bellman adds that they have to acknowledge the past and not ignore it, and she feels the school board is ignoring all the Native American voices who have come out against the nickname.
Starting a petition
Bellman said she became invested in the name change when the Washington Football Team eliminated its Redskin moniker July 13.
“A couple of things happened that day,” Bellman said. “There was a post from a classmate on Facebook where we have a group from the class of 2015 and he was saying ‘does anyone else think this is a good idea for Wapak’ and that started a conversation and then there was also a post that went viral (which is a lot) for Wapak’s standards by an alumni whose name is Lawrence Lee and it had like a thousand comments from his original post that called out the school board and that started the conversation, and it got a lot of positive and negative attention.”
Sparked by the post, Bellman, along with with fellow 2015 graduate Erin Engle, proceeded to write a petition and post it on Change.org. The website is dedicated to start campaigns, mobilize supporters and work with decision makers to drive solutions.
“We thought that was a really great platform through Change.org to be able to have one place where we could share this and have a central place to comment and show their support,” Bellman said.
Bellman added that she was also upset when she read the statement from the superintendent without any opportunity of having a conversation about the issue, and she felt that there people needed to be more aware of what was happening.
As of Friday, Bellman said that they have more than 2,000 signatures on the petition and to her this shows that there needs to be a dialogue on the mascot nickname.
“I wasn’t expecting this big of a reach nationwide but I kind of wasn’t thinking how powerful social media could be until we got all this support,” Bellman said. “ I wasn’t aware how many different types of people would be supporting the name change. It makes me feel good because I think we are on the right side of history. We have people of all ages and people with all different types of jobs and professions. We have young people. We have old people, and we have people who have a direct connection to Wapak who want to change the name whether they taught here, grew up here. We all care about Wapak in some way.”
Thom Gazinski, a 1997 Wapakoneta graduate, is also in support of the name change and has been in contact with the school board voicing his opinion on the name change and sharing the the number of voices opposed to the current mascot.
Gazinski saw the national conversation happening where people are making these systematic changes and symbols and he was told about the movement in Anderson High School in Cincinnati in June and July that eventually led to the board voting to drop the Redskin name.
“I got involved with a couple of those people and started asking questions about their approach, and they helped me kind of focus on talking to the leadership at Wapak and at least see where they are with this conversation about the mascot and what we noticed was that there was more than me and my class that was interested in seeing this change.”
Because of this he was soon in touch with Bellman, collaborating on how to start talking about the mascot with the school board. Gazinski also began communicating with board members and where they stood on the change.
Gazinski added that he said the board was willing to open up a discussion at its Tuesday meeting.
“I’m focusing on the board seeing this opportunity for a change because there is this national conversation taking place where all these symbols in our society are being flipped over and society saying we are not accepting of these anymore,” Gazinski said. “The leadership in Wapak has this coverage to make the decision now to move on from that and take advantage of that, and they can also point to this pressure from the chief and the tribe.”
Gazinski added that the risk for the current board not making a decision to change the name is counter productive and puts a symbolic target on the school’s student-athletes and those involved in extra curricular activities who must carry what he deems the offensive nickname when they compete in the area and around the state.
“Then they become subjected to being tasked in this bad light, and I think a board of education would want to avoid that,” said Gazinski, who said schools have anti-bullying policies and the fact that students could be bullied for having that racial slur on their uniform. “What I am trying to say is that there is an opportunity for Wapakoneta leadership to change, and there is also a motivational factor in that of the risk that you are presenting to your school district by maintaining this racial icon.”
Bellman added that because of the amount of support she said this issue is hard to ignore at this point.
Another driving force in changing the name is the unfortunate reputation Wapakoneta has carried for decades of being a racist town and those in support of the name change said they feel that this adds fuel to that identity.
“You want your hometown to be something that you are proud of and for a lot of us I don’t think we have that with Wapak,” Bellman said. “Initially there is that back step of saying ‘yea I’m from Wapak’ but with a guard up.”
Bellman admits that she did not understand that underlying stigma of Wapakoneta’s reputation growing up but after leaving the city to attend college at Bowling Green State University she has realized this strange dichotomy of spending her childhood in Wapakoneta and not knowing the actual history of her hometown.
“I didn’t even know the history and I know I am not alone in that,” Bellman said. “I grew up very privileged. I was a white kid growing up in Wapak.”
Bellman admits that being a Wapakoneta student she participated in doing a tomahawk chop, signing the teepee that is atop the trophy case in the main foyer of the school and adorning the logo as a member of the marching band because she was unaware of the past history of the Shawnee tribe that inhabited Wapakoneta prior to being forced from their land.
“I have nieces and nephews that go to the school, and I just want it to be different for them growing up because for me I didn’t know,” Bellman said.
What the future holds
Bellman, who does not know what to expect from the school board meeting, is aware that getting the name change is not going to be easy and is aware that the Fort Loramie board of education was recently approached and decided against any mascot name change. In the meeting, Ann Bollheimer, a resident of Fort Loramie, brought up the name change but was the lone voice and a number of individuals came forward in support of keeping the current mascot. The Fort Loramie superintendent Dan Holland said will be no discussion of changing the mascot.
“I think it is pretty straightforward that I want the name to be changed, and the mascot to be changed and our tradition changed,” Bellman said. “I know that it is not going to happen overnight but I want to start the conversations.”
Bellman and supporters of the name change know that the board has a lot more on its agenda than a mascot change due to the pandemic but she at least wants to get that conversation going in hopes of in the future that the school board will eventually reconsider or at least revisit the issue in the future.
“I know it is cliché but you only need one person to start the conversation, and I think it got started there (at Fort Loramie) and why I feel hopeful that if we start the conversation that is a big deal. We are not alone in this,” Bellman said. ““Hopefully we can work together better as a town to change the name and honor our history,” Bellman said.
Gazinski understands the challenges facing the name change and said Wapakoneta is a strong community and will be difficult to sway.
“I don’t have a lot of high expectations in the short term,” Gazinski said. “What I see are long term possibilities where maybe they see this as a risk to students and coaches to be out in other communities with this name or if you look at the California law in 2014 or what Massachusetts is introducing now and from a legal perspective you could see legal action to say let’s not name public schools this term so I don’t think this debate or this discussion is over but I see now I see more people that are alumni or concerned about this issue and I see more people want to see this change than I ever have before and that is from all generations,” Gazinski said. “I think that is a very encouraging sign, and I think we are fed up enough that we will push this issue for decades until we get results.”
Reach Jose Nogueras at 567-242-0468.