Racist taunts aimed at Native American high school athletes denounced

Racist taunts from fans halted a state volleyball tournament match between Caurus Academy and Salt River High School. The Canyon Athletic Association has not sanctioned either team or school. (Photo by Sarah Farrell/Cronkite News)

SCOTTSDALE – Racial taunts directed at a girls volleyball team from the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community reflects the larger societal issue of Native American oppression, a spokesperson for the high school said.

“The whole Valley is traditional homelands of the Oʼotham and Piipaash people,” said Taté Walker, a Lakota storyteller who promotes cultural competency. “I will say that ignorance happens all the time, but I think it’s 2019 and schools can do better at teaching their students how to be better human beings.”

A recent Canyon Athletic Association state tournament girls volleyball match was halted after racial gestures and slurs from Caurus Academy fans were directed at Native American players from Salt River.

There are conflicting reports about what occurred and to what degree, but Randall Baum, executive director of the Canyon Athletic Association, which oversees nontraditional educational institutions, acknowledged that “something did happen.”

The Canyon Athletic Association has formed a committee that includes representatives from both schools to examine what steps can be taken to prevent similar behavior in the future. (Photo by Sarah Farrell/Cronkite News)

Concern about racism directed at Native Americans have permeated the sports world. Several weeks ago, Ryan Helsley, a St. Louis Cardinals reliever and a member of the Cherokee Nation, criticized the use of the “tomahawk chop,” a fan cheer popular with Atlanta Braves fans.

The Washington Redskins’ team nickname and logo is the subject of an ongoing debate. When the team visited the Arizona Cardinals home stadium in 2014, hundreds of Native Americans protested outside, although others showed their support for team owner Daniel Snyder.

Arizona is home to approximately 300,000 Native Americans, according to the Census Bureau. In the past decade, at least 52 incidents of racial harassment directed at Native American athletes, coaches and fans have been recorded in the United States, reports High Country News after compiling data from news articles, federal reports and court documents.

That the recent issue involved high school students seemed troublesome to many.

“The Canyon Athletic Association and our member schools do not support racial discrimination in any form,” Baum said in a statement issued after the incident went viral on social media.

To date, no action has been taken against the Caurus Academy, a public charter school in Anthem, or against the school’s volleyball team or any school officials.

However, the incident has prompted CAA officials to ask why it occurred and to form a committee that includes representatives from both schools to examine what steps can be taken to prevent similar behavior in the future.

Walker said the taunting is indicative of issues bigger than sport and more needs to be done to address the larger societal issue of oppression of Native American people.

“It’s easy to address, but it’s hard to acknowledge that you have an issue,” said Walker, who suggested that a good place to start is by providing students more education about the history of Native American culture.

Reportedly during the third set of the contest, Caurus fans began a mocking “war-whoop,” stereotypically associated with Native Americans. Some also reportedly yelled “savages” at Salt River’s players.

Walker said Salt River coach Kyronna Roanhorse and her assistant coaches witnessed the gestures, which they described as “disgusting.” After the coaches notified referees about the taunting, tensions in the building rose.

Roanhorse, out of concern for the safety of her players, removed her team from the court during the middle of the fourth set because of the taunts.

“Our students and our coaching staff felt unsafe in that gym,” Walker said. “All parties agreed that the game be continued at a later date.”

The members of the administrations at both schools met with the CAA to determine how to proceed, and the match was completed at a neutral site last Friday with Caurus prevailing in five sets.

The CAA reportedly looked into the incident and did not place blame on anyone other than the fans and decided that there would be no sanctions handed down. The decision went widely criticized among social media users.

After the match was concluded at a neutral location, a video surfaced on social media that showed the Salt River girls crying as they went through the ceremonial post-game high five with their opponents.

However, many assumed the video was from the part of the match played earlier and that the girls were reacting to the taunting. Walker said the video showed the emotional response the players had because their season had just ended.

So far, no video of the taunting has surfaced.

Several Caurus parents and others expressed their support for the team at the school’s regular board meeting Monday.

“I am so proud of these girls who stepped out on the court in an extremely difficult situation on Friday,” Caurus principal Wendy Davison said at the meeting. “They were composed, they were mature, they were great sports.”

Board member Kevin LaMountain noted the social-media backlash the academy received from the story.

“This school has handled the hundreds, if not thousands, of negative comments through Facebook posts,” he said. “The story went national. It’s not as though the comments that we’re getting are from 10 miles around this campus. They’re from tens of thousands of miles away. The school has done a fantastic job at handling all of that.”

While the incident was only briefly discussed during the board meeting, it was the subject of several discussions among administrative teams from both schools and the CAA.

Those sparked a conversation about diversity within the school system. The CAA is a governing body that facilitates athletic competition for “non-traditional educational institutions,” in Arizona.

The majority of the approximate 125 member schools fall under the category of charter, home school or parochial institutions.

Ultimately, all parties decided that a change was in order and the CAA announced steps it will take to prevent future incidents.

“(The) CAA executive director will be organizing a committee to develop new policies surrounding cultural competence, so that all members can benefit and the right resources are available to our membership,” Baum said.

The Salt River schools supported the proposal in a statement released last Thursday.

“We are eager to participate on a new CAA committee to address racial discrimination with strong league policy, and we are confident everyone will learn and grow from this experience,” the statement read.

The Caurus statement made no mention of the committee, however.

But Baum said he is ready to implement changes discussed in the various meetings and hopes everyone will learn and grow from an unfortunate situation.

“The important thing we want our athletes, students, families and our fans to leave this experience with is to trust that appropriate actions have been taken to mitigate and move forward,” Baum said.

Sports Reporter, Phoenix
Sports Reporter, Phoenix