Metlakatla’s Longhouse. (Photo courtesy of David R. Boxley).

Last winter, controversy erupted over a basketball game between Ketchikan High School and nearby rival Metlakatla. Students dressed in cowboy hats, flannel shirts and boots for what Ketchikan’s pep club planned as a “country” theme night. Some students shouted racial slurs, according to investigators.

Indigenous fans from both communities took the theme as an offensive reference to old tropes of cowboys and Indians as the Ketchikan team hosted players from Alaska’s only reservation. 

Ketchikan’s school district has since apologized and pledged to do better in the future. And just recently, Ketchikan’s school board made the trip to Metlakatla to address the rift the incident left between the two communities. The meeting was the beginning of what Metlakatla officials say is a necessary healing process. 

It wasn’t just about a basketball game. Or a theme.

“Me personally, I see that it was evident in both communities that there is a deep wound,” Haayk said.

That’s Gatgyeda Haayk, the president of Metlakatla’s school board, speaking on her own behalf about the damage caused by a “country night” pep club theme. 

“In order for the healing to begin, it’s something that needs to be talked about amongst everyone, including leaders in the community,” she said.

That’s what happened on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, when a handful of members from Ketchikan’s school board made the trip to Metlakatla. There was just one item on the agenda: to discuss the deeper problems exposed by that basketball game last winter. 

Haayk said the time was dedicated to exploring ways that the two towns can keep finding ways to bring their students together. 

“I think that everyone is looking forward to moving forward and developing a good relationship,” she said.

Stephen Bradford is the president of Ketchikan’s school board. He said officials in both communities agree that it’s time to build a closer relationship.

“We realized that there had never been a joint meeting of the two school districts — that anyone could remember anyway,” Bradford explained. “We just felt like it was a very productive session just because they (Metlakatla and Ketchikan) are so close. And we are so intertwined.”

Bradford said the two boards also discussed some recent basketball games between the Ketchikan Kings and the Metlakatla Chiefs. He said both boards agree that the atmosphere has been positive at tournament and regular season games. 

“I think the same feeling was expressed about the Clarke Cochrane (Christmas Classic basketball tournament), because the Metlakatla Miss Chiefs had participated in that tournament, and everything was a great atmosphere and a lot of fun for the kids,” Bradford said.

Tom Heutte, a Ketchikan school board member, said the meeting was a reminder of just how closely connected the two towns are.

“We have a lot more in common than we do that separates us,” he said.

Heutte said he’d like to continue to forge closer ties with Metlakatla’s district.

“And so I think what I got out of it was Ketchikan and Metlakatla, are very closely connected almost, you know, one larger community, because a lot of folks in there come over here, and vice versa, very closely linked in our school to school districts are both facing a lot of the same challenges,” Heutte explained.

School board member Diane Gubatayao also made the trip over. She describes the meeting as a chance to show appreciation to Metlakatla. Bradford brought gifts to Metlakatla’s board, including a few framed pictures and a wooden art piece commemorating Alaska Native civil rights leader Elizabeth Peratrovich created by Ketchikan students. 

Metlakatla’s board members took them on a tour of Metlakatla High School and the new vocational-technical buildings, including an inside look at the school’s scuba certification program. Gubatayao said she was grateful for the opportunity.

“I think it was a very important event for one board to honor another and to build relationships with another as board members to board members,” she said. “And we all acknowledge that the most important thing in our efforts and discussion, it’s all about the students, and what’s best for our students. And we are all devoted and dedicated to that same goal.”

And Bradford agreed — at the end of the day, it’s not about basketball — it’s about the students.

“You can tell that there’s great friendship and camaraderie between the players themselves,” he said. “Sometimes it’s the adults who get in the way.”

He said the two boards are ready to move forward together.

Raegan Miller is a Report for America corps member for KRBD. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one. Please consider making a tax-deductible contribution at