Missouri town divided by move to change its 'Savages' mascot

SAVANNAH, Mo. (AP) — A nearly all-white northwest Missouri town is divided over an effort to change its high school's “Savages” mascot that depicts a Native American amid a nationwide movement calling for racial justice.

The high school had a “Savannah Savages” mascot since at least 1926 and the name and the image of a Native American are emblazoned around the community. Savannah, a town of about 5,000 residents about 65 miles (104.61 kilometers) north of Kansas City, was built on land that once belonged to several Native American tribes.

“You literally can’t miss it if you drive through town. It’s everywhere,” said Savannah High School graduate Amanda Barr, who started a petition to change the name in response to racial injustice protests that have spurred other towns and sports teams to reconsider mascots or names considered racially offensive.

Barr's petition prompted a second petition by people who want to keep the name. The issue is so divisive that a meeting of the Savannah School District's school board in July had to be moved to a gymnasium because the crowd was so large. Speakers were evenly divided on the issue, The Kansas City Star reported.

Kendra Haag, 29, a member of the Kickapoo Tribe of Kansas who graduated from Savanna High School in 2009, notes that “savages is a racial slur against Native Americans”

“Redskins, savages, squaw: Those are all racial slurs. And the imagery is a Native American head that plays into racial stereotypes that reduces an entire living culture to one people see on movies and what is misrepresented in media,” said Haag, who now lives in Arizona.

Barr, 36, who now lives in Missoula, Montana, said she the mascot made her “feel ill” when she was in school.

“Tomahawk chops at all the sports games. Students in face and body paint, wearing feathers and other native-inspired regalia as costumes,” she wrote in an email. “… I am ashamed to say I went to this high school, that I used to belong to a community that would denigrate people who have been victims of oppression in this way.”

Barr's petition has drawn more than 6,400 signatures from across the nation and spawned a website, standupsavannah.com.

Jeffrey Hovey of Savannah, who organized the Keep the Savannah Savages Mascot petition, said on his Facebook page “a savage can be from any race or land,” although the high school's mascot includes an image of a Native American. He wrote that the mascot “has no bad intentions towards anyone or any race.” The counter-petition has so far generated nearly 2,600 signatures.

Opponents often mention the potential cost of changing the name and symbol.

"I feel they will spend a ton of money changing uniforms and gym floors and wrestling mats, football fields and all the things. And they can take that money and do better things with it,” said Lisa Gray, owner of Savage Nutrition, who has mixed-race children.

The school board took no action at its July 14 meeting because the issue wasn't on the planned agenda. It is unclear if any action will be taken, said district spokeswoman Jess Gillett, who said about half of those who spoke were for changing the name and half were against it.

“It hasn’t ever come before the school board before,” Gillett said. “It has been something that has been talked about unofficially in the community. It gets brought up every couple of years. Somebody will say, ‘Hey, have you ever thought about changing your mascot?’ That’s usually as far as it goes and it stops there."