The Rogue River School District must retire the Native American nicknames, mascots and logos of its two schools within five years or risk losing state funding, the Oregon Board of Education ordered Thursday.

The Rogue River School District must retire the Native American nicknames, mascots and logos of its two schools within five years or risk losing state funding, the Oregon Board of Education ordered Thursday.

The six-member board has determined the high school's long-held Chieftains identity, along with the elementary school's Braves nickname, are out — deemed discriminatory and promoting of stereotyping among students. The 5-to-1 vote followed months of passionate and emotional debate about tolerance and tradition.

Rogue River High School Principal Jesse Pershin said the district will comply with the board's decision, as losing state funding is not an option. But how and when the changes will occur is still open for discussion, he said.

"We're going to have to comply," Pershin said. "But we probably will not see changes next year. My hope is that we can involve the community, parents, students and staff. I want to see lots of collaboration."

The rule requires 15 high schools, mostly in smaller cities, to erase American Indian mascots from uniforms, sports fields, websites, trophy cases and even school stationery by July 1, 2017. Rogue River is among eight high schools that will need to change its nickname and mascot. Seven schools identified as the Warriors have to alter only their mascots.

Critics say American Indian mascots are racist, contending they reinforce fictionalized stereotypes and promote bullying of Native American students.

"It is racist. It is harmful. It is shaming. It is dehumanizing," Se-ah-dom Edmo, vice president of the Oregon Indian Education Association, told the board.

Supporters say the mascots are a way to honor Native American history, evoking values of strength and bravery.

Jane Lentini Willard was the first mascot for the Chieftains in the mid-1970s, performing tumbling routines at sporting events.

"I was just out there jumping around with the cheerleaders, trying to get the crowd going," Willard said. "We may, as a group, have done some whooping. I can't remember."

Willard wore her long, dark hair in braids and dressed in an outfit made by her mother.

"I was dressed more like a brave," she said. "I didn't have a headdress. I didn't have a tomahawk. I wore moccasins and pants and a long-sleeve tunic with fringes down the legs and arms. "

Willard said she never considered her portrayal could be considered disrespectful by Native Americans or anyone else.

"The word 'chieftain' reminds me of honor and courage and good things," Willard said.

The emotionally charged discussion has been ongoing. In 2006, the Oregon Board of Education adopted a nonbinding recommendation that schools stop using Native American mascots. A handful did, but some small communities have resisted the trend, saying the nicknames are a source of pride.

Pershin testified in Salem four years ago about the issue. At that meeting, schools "were basically asked to self-censor," he said.

"We stopped the mascot," Pershin said, adding that unlike some schools, Rogue River already has made numerous changes — including eliminating a Chieftain mascot who roamed the fields and stands at sporting events, and replacing pictures of chiefs with a spear symbol and a double "R".

"It's an interesting decision that the board has made," Pershin said. "Everyone has their own perspective."

The five-year transition period is intended to help districts pay for changes and give them time to pick a popular new nickname, said Cindy Hunt, government and legal affairs manager for the state Department of Education.

Though the Chieftain is no longer the official school mascot, the name remains, and symbols of chiefs are still found across campus. The board's ruling may mean the Chieftain image will have to be removed from the gym floor, and perhaps the totem pole taken down from its position by the sports field, Pershin said.

Some critics of the ban said they were concerned about the costs of changing uniforms, equipment, school letterhead and street signs, costs the districts must absorb.

The school doesn't have money to paint over murals, purchase new track hurdles and remove the logo from other areas of campus, said Mike Trask, a Rogue River welder who graduated in 1976. Trask spent eight months helping build his alma mater's Field of Dreams sports facility in 2004. He wanted to pay back a community that had helped him following an accident, and because Trask knows the district is strapped for cash.

"I think it's ridiculous what the board has done," Trask said. "It's going to be costly to change everything from letterheads to school signage. And in these (economic) times, it's an even more asinine decision."

Trask remembers seeing Willard's performances at football games and pep rallies.

"The mascot was by no means disrespectful of Native Americans," Trask said. "Jane's Italian. She was dark-skinned. She was a good gymnast. It was cool."

Since the 1970s, more than 600 high school and college teams across the country have done away with their Native American nicknames, including 20 in Oregon.

Students and teachers from schools with Native American nicknames packed two recent public hearings on the topic. Some suggested they be allowed to keep their American Indian nicknames if nearby tribes consent.

The board rejected that idea, with board member Artemio Paz describing it as a "search for acceptable levels of racism."

Oregon Department of Education officials say Wisconsin is the only other state to enact restrictions on Native American mascots.

In some areas, schools have worked with nearby tribes to change their practices without changing their nicknames. Roseburg High School, home of the Indians, switched a logo depicting a Native American to a simple feather. Molalla High School changed sports jerseys to say "Molalla" instead of "Indians" and stopped using a mascot dressed like a Native American to lead cheers.

The NCAA limits the use of imagery and names considered hostile and abusive, and a debate still rages over the University of North Dakota's "Fighting Sioux" nickname and a logo with the profile of an American Indian warrior.

The Oregon Legislature voted in 2001 to eliminate the word "squaw" from geographic names because many Native Americans consider it offensive.

The ban doesn't apply to colleges, but none in Oregon have Native American mascots after Southern Oregon University and Chemeketa Community College dropped theirs.

Pershin said many students and alumni of the Rogue River School District feel misunderstood.

"The only thing we tie the Native American culture to is positive," Pershin said. "But we've been contemplating (making the changes) for years. We'll make something positive out of something that's negative."

Reach reporter Sanne Specht at 541-776-4497 or email sspecht@mailtribune.com. The Associated Press contributed to this story.