Students spoke out Wednesday about allegations of racism in the stands at a recent Ketchikan High School basketball game.
The school district launched an investigation into what it described as “racial insensitivity” after photos circulated of Ketchikan High School students dressed in cowboy boots, cowboy hats and other western attire at the game against Alaska’s only Native reservation.
Emotions ran high in a packed Ketchikan school board meeting Wednesday. Students shared their thoughts on Saturday’s high school basketball game between Ketchikan and Metlakatla during a portion of the meeting set aside for public comment.
Ketchikan senior John Bullock said he was playing in the band during Saturday’s game. He’s a member of Ketchikan’s federally-recognized tribe of Tlingit and Haida descent and says there were outbursts from his high school’s fans that troubled him.
“There were what looked like and sounded like Indian war cries while the other team were going up for free throws, and bird calls and barking at the other team, and this made me feel really uncomfortable at the game,” he said to Ketchikan’s school board.
He paused briefly to compose himself.
“I’d like to ask: What are we planning to do about this to make sure it doesn’t happen?” he said.
Federally-recognized tribes including Ketchikan Indian Community, Metlakatla Indian Community and the Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska have all issued statements condemning the Ketchikan basketball fans’ cowboy dress, as has the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group.
John’s sister, Kristall Bullock, also a member of Ketchikan’s tribe, was also overcome with emotion as she testified to the board on Wednesday. She says she was also at the game, and it’s been tense at school with some non-Native students dismissive of their feelings.
“It has been — the past few days where things have been pointed towards myself and other Natives in the school, that we’re sensitive about everything and about all this,” she said. “Kids have been telling me that nothing was said.”
The Ketchikan pep club’s student president was in attendance at Wednesday’s school board meeting but didn’t address the school board and declined to be interviewed
But other pep club members did speak. Braydan Heath says his club’s “country” theme was not meant to reopen historical wounds by riffing on old cliches of cowboys and Indians.
“I can say with complete honesty, there was no intent to offend anyone. Since it was brought to our attention, we’ve all talked about ways to avoid this in the future. We all feel badly that some people felt like we were attacking their race, as that was truly not the intent. I apologize,” he said to the school board. “I hope we can all work together in the future to prevent this type of misunderstanding.”
Ketchikan sophomore and pep club member Stevie Kamm said in an interview that she was at Saturday’s game. She reiterated that they were rooting for their basketball team and got competitive but insisted they didn’t cross any lines.
“Our pep club could be jerks, but we’re not racists,” she said.
She says in the days since the game, as word spread across the state, the backlash has been intense.
“It’s really chaotic. Especially with everyone coming at our throats — mostly adults. We had a few adults from Met (Metlakatla) compare us to the KKK,” she said.
Kamm says she didn’t hear any hateful language from her side.
“No racial slurs were even said, but even if it was one person, it doesn’t make your whole town racist, or even your whole pep club,” she said.
But even so, Kristall Bullock says Saturday’s basketball game has reopened old wounds.
“Even if it was just a few kids this weekend, it was so offensive,” she said.
She said she was speaking out because she said her mother had taught her to stand up for what she believes in.
“Something she has told me is that you have a voice — and use it,” she said.
The school district says its probe into the basketball game is expected to wrap up by the end of the week. Ketchikan’s superintendent told the board she wouldn’t comment on the incident until it does.
In the meantime, the district has apologized on behalf of the high school.