Ketchikan High School. (KRBD file photo by Leila Kheiry)

Ketchikan’s school district says it’s investigating allegations of racism in the stands after some of its high school students dressed up as cowboys during a basketball game against its rivals from Alaska’s only Native reservation.


Tensions flared after photos circulated of student fans dressed in western wear in the stands at a varsity high school basketball game at Ketchikan High School on Saturday. Students in the school’s pep club wore cowboy hats, cowboy boots, flannel shirts, and the like.

India Hudson says she was at the game. She has ties to both communities — she lives in Ketchikan, and her sons play for Kayhi’s junior varsity basketball team, but she’s Tsimshian from Metlakatla and a member of Metlakatla’s federally-recognized tribe.

“I’m related to a lot of the (Metlakatla) basketball players, and I think that they are also really awesome kids, too,” she said by phone Tuesday. “So it was extremely hard for me to see what was going on.”

Hudson says she was taken aback by the pep club’s attire.

“When the Juneau-Douglas Bears play, they (the Kayhi pep club members) dress up as hunters, and it’s kind of funny, you know?” she said. “And I thought, Are they trying to be cowboys and Indians?”

The school district announced shortly after the game that it had launched an investigation into the incident. Ketchikan High School apologized on its Facebook page the next morning.

“Ketchikan High School would like to extend a sincere apology to our community and to our friends, family, and neighbors in Metlakatla for the cultural insensitivity shown at last night’s basketball game. It is our desire to make Ketchikan High School a safe and welcoming environment for all. We will continue to work to hold ourselves to those highest standards of sportsmanship, respect, and hospitality,” the statement said.

The posts from the district and Kayhi were later taken down. Ketchikan’s interim superintendent, Melissa Johnson, said in a text message Wednesday night that the school district stood by its statements and had removed the posts after social media users left comments targeting individual students.

Johnson says as she understands it, the pep club had dressed up for a “country” theme night.

“But then it looked like cowboy night, and so it looked like it was a cowboy-versus-Indians theme. And so the people from Metlakatla, rightfully so, felt like we were being culturally insensitive,” Johnson said by phone Tuesday.

Johnson is Alaska Native herself and serves on Ketchikan Indian Community’s Tribal Council. She’s in the running to be the district’s first permanent superintendent of Alaska Native descent.

The student president of the pep club did not respond to requests for comment on Monday and Tuesday. Johnson did not respond to an emailed request to speak with pep club leaders.

Metlakatla’s superintendent, Taw Lindsey of the Annette Island School District, says he’s been in touch with his counterpart in Ketchikan and is awaiting the outcome of the investigation.

“It, to me is definitely insensitive. It brings out some historical trauma on how Native people have been treated in the past, and it’s concerning,” Lindsey said in a phone interview Tuesday. “Our students don’t deserve that.”

Ketchikan’s school board president, Stephen Bradford, was at the game. He chalks up the insensitivity of the theme to carelessness rather than racism.

“The adults probably should have thought that through a little more carefully, when the themes were announced, that it might be inappropriate for the Metlakatla game,” Bradford said in a phone interview on Tuesday.

Ketchikan’s full school board has yet to publicly address the issue.

Hudson, the Metlakatla tribal member in Ketchikan, says it may not have been malicious. But even so:

“No matter what the intent was, that was the message that came across. And I think that maybe they didn’t think about the past — all of the past that cowboys and Indians entails to Native people,” she said. “That’s not a good history that comes up when you say that to somebody Native, you know?”

Ketchikan’s superintendent says the investigation is still underway. But she says the school district has accepted some responsibility for a lack of staff oversight of the pep club’s country and western theme.

“That is a fault on the adults’ part — it’s a fault on our policies and procedures, which won’t happen again, and we will make sure that whatever theme that we choose is culturally sensitive and appropriate. So moving on, we will definitely have a plan moving forward on what the kids will dress up like,” Johnson said.

Anger is simmering among some parents from Metlakatla who attended Saturday’s game, including Latonya Galles, the mother of a Metlakatla Chiefs point guard.

“Shame on them,” she said. “Racism at its finest.”

She insists the offensive conduct went beyond what the Ketchikan students were wearing.

“Those kids were like literally barking and making weird noises when our kids were at the free throw line — like, what is that?” she said by phone Monday.

Hudson says she, too, heard barking from the Kayhi fans. She said it brought back painful memories of discrimination and institutional racism.

“It’s a personal reason — It’s actually the first time I realized that racism was a thing. I was a little girl walking with my (Alaska Native) grandfather over here (in Ketchikan),” she said. “We were walking downtown and the food smelled really good. And I said, ‘Let’s go in there to this restaurant.'”

She says she recalls her grandfather saying no — that he never went to that restaurant.

“And I said, ‘Why not?’ And he said, ‘Because there used to be a sign up that said no Indians or dogs allowed,'” she said. “That was what I was thinking about when they were barking.”

But Ketchikan school board president Stephen Bradford suggests another explanation for the rowdy Kayhi fans.

“Kayhi’s pep club, I think, has been barking at the opponents shooting free throws for years — whether it’s Petersburg, or Juneau or anybody. So I didn’t associate it with anything improper,” Bradford said by phone Tuesday.

It’s still unclear whether any racial slurs were voiced. That, Johnson says, is something the school district is trying to establish.

“But I will find that out,” she said. “And if we have situations where people were not using appropriate behaviors, then we will take action on  that.”

Darcy Booth, a member of Metlakatla’s school board, said in a lengthy statement that the incident represented not cultural insensitivity, as it was described in Ketchikan High School’s apology, but outright racism.

“It was aimed at our players, our students, our children, and I publicly denounce and rebuke it unequivocally. Like every other parent in Metlakatla, I want to see accountability after the district’s investigation.”

India Hudson, the Tsmishian parent in Ketchikan, says she hopes this will be a teachable moment.

“As a Native, it is difficult to live in Ketchikan a lot of times,” she said. “I mean, every single member of my family has experienced racism here — you know, racial slurs, name calling, that kind of thing. It’s not something that we’re making up in our heads.”

Johnson says the investigation is expected to wrap up by the end of the week.

This story has been updated with additional details.