Library Staffer Lends Voice to School Mascot Issue

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Wednesday, February 17, 2021

Hunter Hawkins has a confession. “I am very loud,” he says, “which has gotten me into trouble many times in my life.”

Not this time.

The Plaza Branch library assistant – among other things, the driving force behind the Queer Voices Book Group – lent his time and impassioned voice to a nearly yearlong public campaign to retire Shawnee Mission North High School’s Indian mascot. He brought particular cachet to the discussion, having performed as the SM North mascot as a senior in 2012-13. It has bothered him ever since, he says.

On January 25, the Shawnee Mission School District delivered its verdict: a 7-0 vote to enact a new policy on school mascots across the district, stipulating that they “be culturally and racially sensitive and appropriate” and “not run counter to the district’s mission of creating a fully unified, equitable, and inclusive culture.”

Immediately, the board found the mascots of SM North and three elementary schools – all Indians and Braves – in violation of the guidelines. Replacements will be chosen, with SM North outlining a plan to identify a new mascot by April or May and officially retire its Indians name and likeness in June.

Loud, in this case, was good.

“We were keeping our expectations low. We know how easily progress can get tied up and hindered in committees,” Hawkins says. “So, a unanimous vote has shocked all of us in the best way. And to be given the timetable of ‘by the end of the year’ is simply beyond our wildest dreams.”

The move was debated by thousands in the school district and beyond. A Facebook page, SMN Alumni Against Cultural Appropriation, counted 1,030 members by the time of the final vote. Competing petitions drew 4,600 signatures in favor of a new mascot and nearly 3,000 against.

Hawkins’ profile rose late last November, when he was featured in a story about the issue in The Kansas City Star. He got some blowback over the course of the campaign, including a threatening Facebook message after the pro-change petition was launched, but learned to tune it out. The cause carried him.

“I was dubious of it at the time,” he says of his performances at SM North football and basketball games. “One of the reasons I applied to be the mascot is I saw the type of sort of macho – for lack of a better word, racist – guy who was applying and thought, ‘I’ll give it the respect it deserves.’ But as soon as got out of high school … I realized from talking to people that it wasn’t something I wanted to bring up. I was pretty embarrassed about it.”

His activism, he says, was “almost like atonement for me. If I can be a loud voice … so no other kid ever has to do it again, it will be not only the right thing to do but also, personally, quieting.”