The process of consolidating Juneau’s high school football teams is off to a bumpy start.
In November 2017, the Alaska School Activities Association voted to consolidate Juneau’s two high school football teams (at the Juneau School District’s request). On Feb. 7, JSD announced that the new football team’s mascot would be the Thunder Bears — a mixture of the Thunder Mountain High School Falcons and Juneau-Douglas High School Crimson Bears.
The transition to the new mascot name had barely begun when a post from 2004 on an internet dictionary brought the process to a halt.
The first result for a Google search for “thunderbear” leads to a posting on Urban Dictionary, a site that allows anyone to post a definition for any term they want. A definition of “thunderbear,” posted by Urban Dictionary user “mike” on April 12, 2004, lists that a “thunderbear” is, “Someone who has absoulutely (sic) no control of their liquour (sic), and Frequently goes on drunken tirades. Wreaking havoc on anyone or thing in his path. Usually of Native American descent.”
JSD Superintendent Mark Miller said he wasn’t sure who first discovered the definition, but said it came to his attention about a week after the announcement of the new mascot. He said he felt that because a student vote was key in selecting the mascot name in the first place, students should lead the way in choosing whether to change it.
Students were also part of a committee that came up with mascot options. That committee included student representatives, football players, cheer squad members, parents and school staff.
As a result, there was a meeting this past Saturday at the Alaska State Capitol that included 10 high school students, Reps. Sam Kito III and Justin Parish of Juneau, Miller and six speakers who presented to the group. The students in attendance were all there voluntarily, Miller said. The students present were different than the students who were on the committee that came up with mascot options, Miller said.
Nine of the students (four from JDHS, four from TMHS and one from Yakoosge Daakahidi High School) voted by a 5-4 margin to get rid of the Thunder Bear nickname and start the selection process over, according to JSD Chief of Staff Kristin Bartlett.
One of those students was Kathy Tran, the president of the TMHS Student Government. Tran said she first heard about the Urban Dictionary definition from a fellow student’s Facebook post about the term. It shocked her and many of her fellow students, she said, because the term had already been in use (unofficially) for other activities that included both JDHS and TMHS students.
“It was mostly as a joke, but also as a show of camaraderie,” Tran said of the previous use of the term. “It was curious to hear that this term was racist, because we’ve been using it for so long.”
Tran said she ended up voting in favor of keeping the mascot name, partially in an effort to legitimize the term and make it into something positive.
Bartlett said the next steps are still to be determined, and there are no meetings scheduled at the moment. Miller said the team colors — black, silver and white — are likely to remain the same.
Miller was impressed with the way the students carried themselves Saturday, and said it was a good learning experience for them.
“This is probably the only place in the entire United States of America where real students meet at the capitol building with real elected officials who are making them run the hearing just like it was a real committee hearing…to make a real decision,” Miller said. “This was an empowered committee. I would be willing to bet that that didn’t happen anywhere else last year.”
The derogatory nature of the Urban Dictionary post is not unusual for the site, nor is it unusual for the user “mike,” who posted more than 1,500 definitions on the site. Among them are multiple insulting entries pertaining to women and a number of obscure sexual terms.
There are no other definitions available that list “thunderbear” under the same definition as the Urban Dictionary entry. In the past week, two new entries were listed on Urban Dictionary for the term, one of which was in reference to it being a football mascot and another listing it as a “strong, powerful and cunning bear.”
Rosita Worl, president of the Sealaska Heritage Institute, said in a statement Monday that she’s “heartened and proud” of the students who made the choice to reconsider the mascot name. She said she understands Urban Dictionary is not an authoritative source, but that the one entry could lead to the meaning becoming more widespread.
“While the offensive definition came from a dubious source in contrast to several other sources that did not cast the term Thunder Bear in a derogatory fashion, it began to take on a mantle of racism and it was heard being used as a slur,” Worl said in a statement. “Our nation can take heed of the actions of our youth, both in Juneau and those youth at the national level, who are leading the way to make sure our schools are safe.”
• Contact reporter Alex McCarthy at 523-2271 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @akmccarthy.