'We have not told this story correctly': Waubonsie Valley updating its Potawatomi imagery
A new day is dawning at Waubonsie Valley High School.
For nearly 50 years, the community supporting the Aurora school embraced the Warriors nickname, sometimes awkwardly, without a complete understanding of what the region meant to Chief Waubonsie and the Potawatomi people who called it home for hundreds of years.
That's starting to change.
School officials are taking the first steps to remove imagery considered inaccurate and offensive to Native Americans. In its place will be murals and other items acknowledging the First People, whose land was taken away by the government as they were forced southwest into Oklahoma.
Principal Jason Stipp considers it an overdue attempt to honor the Potawatomi people and Chief Waubonsie, whose name translates as "Break of Day."
"We have not told this story correctly," Stipp said. "We're not erasing history. We want to be more true to what that history is."
Last week, school officials unveiled a 46-by-14-foot mural near the athletics and activities entrance. It features a portrait of Waubonsie, based on one of only two known drawings of him, superimposed on a serene landscape of rolling prairies, cloudy skies and Potawatomi people paddling canoes along a river.
The designer of the mural, Ryan Loft of Plainfield-based Digicom Imaging, spent months researching Potawatomi history. He then produced and installed the mural, storyboard and accompanying educational stands with QR codes directing people to the Potawatomi Historical Center website.
"This was a source of pride for me," Loft said. "My kids went to Neuqua Valley, and we're based down the road.
"A big part of this is bringing the education here, where it started, instead of where it finished in Oklahoma."
When Waubonsie Valley opened in 1975, Stipp said, the intention was to recognize the Potawatomi people.
It's why the district was named Indian Prairie Unit District 204. It's why Neuqua Valley and Metea Valley high schools were named after relatives of Waubonsie, who died in 1848 in Iowa.
As Waubonsie Valley's enrollment grew and the region's population exploded, the sense of history in the school became muddled. Images went up depicting inaccurate desert scenes with shirtless "Indian Warriors," painted in the green-and-gold school colors and wearing flamboyant feathered headdresses.
"We weren't portraying the First People or native woodland experience," Stipp said. "The Potawatomi people had furs, and they were more hunters and gatherers. We were showing a more western, or what a Hollywood approach to a native would be. On a horse, fighting, shirtless.
"Before we took any imagery down, we wanted to acknowledge and educate our community on what the Potawatomi First People experience was and who Chief Waubonsie was."
The timing corresponded with similar movements throughout the country. The National Football League team in Washington, D.C., and the Major League Baseball team in Cleveland ceased using offensive Native American nicknames and mascots.
Stipp formed a committee to research what should be done at Waubonsie Valley. Changing the school name was quickly taken off the table, and the Warriors nickname was kept as a representation of a student body working hard in school, competing and doing the right things to be successful.
Warrior Imagery Committee member Alexandra Skurka, entering her senior year at Waubonsie Valley, and others aimed to begin implementing the agreed-upon changes before they graduated.
When the school's 50th anniversary arrives in 2025, a complete overhaul should be complete.
"The whole student body should be proud of how we're changing the way we're perceived," she said. "There's a history here that I never knew about even though I've lived here my whole life."
Embracing the future
After several committee meetings, Loft was charged with creating the new imagery in the school.
His mural, about the same size as a standard highway billboard, is a stunning start. The vinyl material emerged from a printer in more than 40 panels and then sealed to the wall with heat.
"I've never done a mural this large in the 25 years I've been in business," Loft said. "It's something that will catch everyone's eyes."
For proper research, Stipp and Loft maintained contact with the Potawatomi Historical Center in Oklahoma and the Schaumburg-based Trickster Cultural Center. They talked to experts of Potawatomi descent, such as Dr. John Low, an American Indian Studies professor at Ohio State University.
Loft displayed additional images on a curved, LED-lit storyboard in front of the mural. A montage of colorful pictures includes accurately clothed Potawatomi people gathering around a fire, hunting, creating quilts and participating in other activities.
On both sides of the board are stands with signs telling the story of the Potawatomi people. There's also an acknowledgment plaque on the wall explaining the history of the school district and the imagery change.
The school board approved the first stage of the project at an estimated cost of $28,000.
"We didn't want to overwhelm people with the history, but we know this is a main entrance for athletics and activities in the school," Stipp said. "We wanted people to think about it and learn while they're here."
Shining on the tile floor in front of the new mural, the Waubonsie Valley crest sticks out like a sore thumb.
The green-and-gold emblem looks normal except for the image of a Native American wearing a headdress and flanked by tomahawks on either side.
Among the remaining work to honor the region's Potawatomi history, designing a new crest tops the list for the upcoming school year.
Step by step, change is coming.
"We're not perfect, but we can tell this story correctly and move forward," Stipp said.