Roger & Becki Basham | Hart Indians: An Academic Approach

Letters to the Editor
Letters to the Editor

The following is an open letter to the William S. Hart Union High School District governing board: 

Over the past several months a discussion has been taking place in the halls of academia at Hart High School. The topic of the proper name for a school mascot has been dragged out once more and placed before the citizens of the Santa Clarita Valley. Multiple opinions have flowed forth, some citing local history, others seeking to honor the memory of William S. Hart, and then there were those that simply illustrated ignorance and present-day racial hysteria. 

Four of our children attended Hart High, and they have gone on to have professional careers that were grounded in the excellent education they received. They are all proud to have graduated from Hart and remember their years with fondness. Another generation of our family will soon be attending Hart as well and are looking forward to a positive experience, not one marked with unnecessary controversy. 

For nearly 40 years I taught sociology and anthropology courses at College of the Canyons, and one of the most popular classes was titled “Indians of California.” Today we might retitle the course as “Native Americans of California” or “Indigenous Peoples of California,” but the common terminology was to refer to these early settlers of California as “Indians.” 

Those who are offended by this term should be aware that the name “Indian” appears in the title of many of the primary textbooks dealing with the history, archaeology, ethnology and ethnography of this population of approximately 300,000 people who inhabited the West Coast from San Diego to Eureka and eastward to the Colorado River. 

The uninformed might well look at the popular and classic books on the subject at hand:  

“Handbook of the Indians of California” c. 1923, Alfred Kroeber, Berkeley.  

“Handbook of the Indians of California, Bulletin 78 of the Bureau of American Ethnology” c.1925, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C. 

“Handbook of North American Indians Vol. 8 California” c.1978, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C. 

“The California Indians: A Source Book” c. 1951 and 1971, R. F. Heizer and M. A. Whipple, Berkeley. 

“The Natural World of the California Indians” c. 1980, R.F. Heizer and A. B. Elsasser, Berkeley. 

The above anthropologists represent some of the elite in the field of the study of the California Indian population. The point is that the identifying term “Indian” is not in any way being used in a derogatory manner, and as such is no different than labeling a group “Anglo” or “Asian” or “Pacific Islander.” The vast majority of my library of more than 500 books dealing with the earliest peoples to inhabit the North American land mass referred to these peoples as “Indians” and then specifically by their tribal names. 

The choosing of the mascot name “Indians” more than 70 years ago by a group of students and high school employees was to recognize the population that William S. Hart had become the national spokesperson for following the death of their prior representative, William “Buffalo Bill” Cody. Bill Hart was so attached to these native peoples and their multitude of cultures that when he built his home in Newhall, he hired the Heinsbergen Galleries to carry out the interior decorations of the 10,000-square-foot mansion, which still sits on a hill overlooking the community of Newhall and appropriately faces Hart High School. The American Indian influence pervades Hart’s home with hand-painted beams duplicating Indian motifs, Navajo rugs, Western-themed artwork, and a multitude of Indian artifacts. 

Now, you must ask yourselves as elected representatives of Bill Hart’s community, how would Bill Hart feel about your stepping in and changing a tradition that was started to honor him and the people he so deeply cared for and represented? It should be noted that Hart’s contacts with Native Americans was primarily with those tribes from the Great Lakes area, the Midwest and the Southwest, and minimal interaction occurred with California Indians and probably little to none with the local tribes. 

For those who claim to be “deeply embarrassed” or feel that the mascot name is somehow disrespectful for a racial group, my suggestion is that they try taking a few anthropology courses and maybe, just maybe, if they can approach the subject matter without prejudice, they will come to recognize that the name “Indians” was given in honor and not in jest. 

As a final comment and suggestion, for those who feel that the local tribes are being disrespected, Bill Hart certainly would not have participated nor condoned such behavior. The respect the local tribes are seeking is not going to be achieved through changing the name of a mascot, and this, in fact, might actually result in just the opposite result as there are thousands of Hart High graduates who are proud to have been a Hart High Indian and many still wear the school colors and emblem on their jerseys and jackets. 

Perhaps those who wish to bring greater recognition to the local tribes, such as tribal President Rudy Ortega, should put their energies forward and work toward creating museum-quality displays depicting the lifestyle of the Tataviam and Fernandeño Mission Indians. I would think your board of trustees would approve of such a display in a proper location on campus, and other potential informational displays could be established at Santa Clarita City Hall and the local city libraries. As the former chairman of the Anthropology Department at COC, I am sure that a professional display would be most welcome in one of the anthropology classrooms or labs or in the college library. Such informational displays would go much further toward developing a public recognition and appreciation for Native Americans, as opposed to complaining about the name of a school mascot. I remember that when I was in college we updated the artwork for our school mascot without causing any public controversy, and maybe this is the time to do so with the Hart Indian image. Keep the name, save the recognition of a noteworthy people, and improve the image that depicts the Hart mascot. 

We urge you to leave the name of the Hart mascot the “Indians” and uphold the tradition with pride. 

Roger E. Basham, professor emeritus, anthropology and sociology, College of the Canyons 

Becki Basham, board member, gift store manager, Friends of William S. Hart Park


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