PORT NECHES, Texas -- A performance by the Port Neches-Groves High School drill team at Walt Disney World last week is making headlines and becoming the talk of social media.
In a video posted on Twitter with more than 1.6 million views as of Wednesday, the dancers, who are known as the "Indianettes," could be seen wearing costumes modeled after Native American dress and chanting racist phrases at Magic Kingdom during Spring Break. Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. of Cherokee Nation said the high school also calls its football stadium, the "Reservation."
"I can tell you no Chief of the Cherokee Nation, whether it's me or whether it dates back to Chief Swimmer who served in the late 70s to the early 80s would condone the kind of imagery or depiction of Native peoples that we see PNG not only do, but stubbornly refuse to even consider that those displays are offensive," he said. "They're not authentic. They have no connection to the Cherokee people, in fact, in many ways make a mockery of our wonderful and beautiful traditions."
Nita Battise, vice chair of tribal council for the Alabama-Coushatta Tribe of Texas, held up a photo of her great uncle, Chief Kina Robert Fulton Battise wearing a headdress during her Zoom interview with ABC13. Although the dancers were not seen in the Twitter video with them, she and Chief Hoskin talked about how the drill team have been seen donning headdresses in other photos and videos. They explained that typically only those in leadership or highly respected roles are allowed to wear them.
"For this to continue to this present day ... unbelievable and then there was anger," said Nita Battise. "It's as if we don't exist as a tribal sovereign nation or we don't exist as a thriving community that participates in everyday life. It's as if we never existed."
"The depictions they (the Indianettes) have in their photos show ornate headdresses that are actually more akin to some Plains Indian tribes. So much of that is not even rooted in Cherokee tradition," said Chief Hoskin. "I think it goes to show that there's a lot of misinformation out there and a lack of understanding in the country about Native traditions. We're not a monolith. Each tribe is different."
Since the fallout, Disney released a statement that says, "The live performance in our park did not reflect our core values, and we regret it took place. It was not consistent with the audition tape the school provided and we have immediately put measures in place, so this is not repeated." Disney is also the parent company of ABC13.
People living in the area who support using the "Indians" as the school's mascot told ABC13 it's meant to be a respectful tribute and a way to honor Native American communities. One Port Neches resident and high school alum, who declined to provide his name, said their school spirit is a way to show pride for the area's Indigenous history and culture.
"Cancel culture got started. Cancel culture needs to be canceled. Quit trying to cancel everybody for something that you don't think is right. Understand everything before you try to cancel anyone out," he said.
The town is divided over the controversy. Yonausdi, who asked to be identified only by his first name, is an alum of PNG High with Cherokee heritage. He said he hopes district officials will take note of other schools and athletic teams across the country who have retired their Native American mascots. He and dozens of other community members took part in a peaceful protest outside of PNGISD's board meeting Monday evening.
"When it comes down to it, it dehumanizes Indigenous people," he said. "They say they're all about honoring Indigenous people. In order to honor Indigenous people, you need to not speak over them. The Indigenous community is speaking and that's where you need to listen."
READ: Letter to Port Neches-Groves school leaders from the Cherokee Nation
Chief Hoskin tells ABC13 they've sent multiple letters to PNGISD over the last few years, urging the high school to change its Native American mascot. But he claims district officials refused. He also said the tribe revoked an Ambassador of Goodwill certificate issued to the school in 1979.
"When the Chief of Cherokee Nation reaches out in 2022 and says that and is met with really, just a dismissive attitude and then we see what happened at Disney, I think it sends a message that they're not concerned about what Cherokee Nation thinks," he said. "I think they are clinging to their traditions, which are traditions that frankly, don't have any roots in actual culture."
He explained the use of Native American mascots in schools perpetuate inaccurate stereotypes about Indigenous people, such as the idea of savagery.
"Generations of young Indigenous people were forced through boarding schools through federal Indian policies, even state policies that suppressed expressions of their culture. They lost their identity in large measure and our identity means so much," said Chief Hoskin. "To see our identity just completely mischaracterized, made almost cartoonish and buffoonish, it does something to young Natives."
Nearly all of the Port Neches-Groves High School's social media accounts have been either deleted or made private and district officials have not disclosed why. They sent ABC13 a generic statement that writes, "We are committed to diversity, equity, and inclusion in our school district." But they declined to answer our follow-up questions about whether they would consider a mascot change.
"I want PNG High School's students to know that I don't have any ill will against them. But I want officials to know you can't honor tribes by making us mascots or even naming your team after us," said Chief Hoskin. "But it could be in deepening students' understanding of Native culture and there's lots of ways to do that. Imagine if Cherokee historians or cultural experts were invited to a school to talk about real Cherokee culture and identity. Students would be so much better off. They would lead fuller lives."
Battise, who is part of the executive committee for the National Congress of American Indians, said the organization which represents a unified voice of all 574 tribal nations is working to eradicate Native American-themed mascots "once and for all."
"We must start the process to educate our students, because this is something that should no longer be acceptable," said Battise. "This is an opportunity to engage in a dialogue, a much-needed overdue dialogue."
The Walt Disney Company is the parent company of Walt Disney World and this station.