A 14-year-old girl was called a “squaw” while speaking out against the use of Native Americans as mascots at a McLoud, Oklahoma school board meeting last month.
Bella Cornell and her mother Sarah Adams-Cornell, both members of the Choctaw nation, were invited to give testimony at the meeting before the McLoud school board voted to determine whether or not the use of the controversial mascot would continue.
When a school board member interrupted the teen’s testimony to tell her she was out of time, members of the audience began shouting at her, according to attendees of the meeting.
“It was pretty hostile,” attendee and McLoud resident Mosiah Bluecloud told PEOPLE. “One of the children told Bella, ‘Get off the stage, squaw.’ ”
Doran Smith, superintendent of McLoud schools, denied that the incident occurred. “I did not hear that and nobody that I spoke to heard that,” he told PEOPLE.
When asked about reports that the girl left the podium in tears, Smith said, “I did see that the young girl was upset,” but was unable to explain why.
The mother and daughter live in Oklahoma City, but were invited to travel to McLoud to give testimony by McLoud High School’s Indian Education Director Woodrow Wilson, who said at the meeting that members of the community were afraid to speak against the mascot.
“There are people who are offended … who are afraid to come forward … afraid they’ll be ridiculed,” Wilson said at the meeting, according to The Oklahoman. “They’re afraid of what people will say because they’re the minority saying this.”
“I know that there are others in the community and in the school district who don t agree with the mascot,” Sarah told PEOPLE. “But they knew their jobs could be put in jeopardy or their children could be bullied [if they spoke out].”
Bluecloud said this is something he has experienced firsthand. “I feel I’m being shunned by the McLoud community and Woodrow is being shunned and anybody that stands up is going to be shunned,” he said.
The board voted 3-0 to keep the Redskins as the school mascot with one member abstaining.
“I think the general feeling was that the majority of the people there expressed support for it,” Smith told PEOPLE. “The board was given copies of petitions from local native leaders and local native members of the community so they were given evidence from tribal members for keeping the name.”
Bluecloud said that many members of the Kickapoo Tribe, including his sister, who started one of the petitions mentioned by Smith, are in favor of keeping the name.
“The Kickapoo people see the term redskin as the original definition of the word which for us referred to paint. We referred to ourselves as redskins or red people,” he explained. “But the term went derogatory and that’s why I said it should be changed.”
Bluecloud added that while many members of the Kickapoo community do not find the term offensive, he feels the mascot should be replaced out of respect for other native people.
“My grandpa told me that as Kickapoo people we are Indians before we are Kickapoo,” he said. “That means the needs of everybody come before our own.”
Multiple studies have shown that the continued use of Native Americans as mascots affirms negative stereotypes and harms both native and non-native students alike by promoting prejudice and creating negative relations among students, according to the American Psychological Association. These findings led the APA to call for the retirement of American Indian mascots in 2005. Smith declined to comment on these findings.
“Our children are suffering because of these mascots,” Sarah told PEOPLE. “It doesn t matter how we feel anymore – the data is here, you can’t argue with that.”
“Using a race of people as a mascot is never ok. Racism is never ok,” Bella added. “You can’t just play it off and say that it honors us and you can’t say, ‘We have no bad intentions.’ I think that we have the right to decide what honors us and does not honor us.”
Bluecloud said the majority of the attendees were in favor of keeping the mascot – and unwilling to listen to those giving testimony against it.
“There was a tension there,” he said. “I was hoping the ladies would make it to their cars ok when they left.”
“The intensity and hostility increased with every speaker and then they were just yelling at us,” Sarah recalled. “I felt unsafe.”
“[The audience] was yelling things at me and unfortunately Bella spoke right after [I did], and I know she was impacted by the disrespect aimed at me,” she continues. “She was on the verge of tears as she walked up to speak.”
Bella admits she was nervous to speak before witnessing her mom’s treatment. After, she says she felt “ten times worse.” She was allotted two minutes to give her testimony. She says the yelling started as she was wrapping up. After being called the racial slur, she gave the person the middle finger.
After the testimony, the school board voted to keep the Redskins as the school’s mascot.
“It was so very disappointing,” Sarah says of the decision. Still, the pair remains hopeful that change will come – and soon. A complaint has been filed with the Department of Justice about the case and the subject of native American mascots continues to be debated on a national scale.
“I would just ask people to understand that this impacts our children and native mascots have the ability to dehumanize people and when you do that it makes other atrocities possible,” Sarah says.