Concerned by potential slur, students oust Thunder Bears as district mascot

Juneau-Douglas High School students Molly Minick, Clark Toutai, Theo Houck and Katie McKenna listen as a community member testifies at a meeting about whether to keep the district's Thunder Bear mascot on Saturday, March 10, 2018. (Photo by Adelyn Baxter/KTOO)
Juneau-Douglas High School students Molly Minick, Clark Toutai, Theo Houck and Katie McKenna listen as a community member testifies at a meeting about whether to keep the district’s Thunder Bear mascot on Saturday. (Photo by Adelyn Baxter/KTOO)

It’s back to the drawing board to find a mascot for Juneau’s combined high school sports teams.

Students decided Saturday that Thunder Bears, which students across the district chose last month, would need to be reevaluated after an alternative meaning was discovered online.

Nine student representatives from Thunder Mountain and Juneau-Douglas high schools spent their Saturday morning listening to testimony from members of the community at the state Capitol.  

In the end, they voted to send Thunder Bears back to the committee tasked with selecting it.

“I’ve seen some of the effects of the Thunder Bears decision initially already taking place in our school and it’s already been used as a slur,” said Juneau-Douglas sophomore Katie McKenna.

She said she had heard someone using the term offensively in class last week, and was concerned that allowing it to continue as the district mascot would promote racist stereotypes.

Flags were raised after students and district administrators learned of an UrbanDictionary.com entry defining “thunderbear” as a term for people who drink too much, usually of Native American descent. Since Friday, two more thunderbear definitions have been added without negative meanings.

Although the posting is from 2004 and the website is known for assigning raunchy meanings to otherwise harmless words, the school district decided to bring student leaders together to decide whether or not to keep the mascot. They reached out to Juneau Reps. Sam Kito III and Justin Parish, who moderated the meeting.

The majority of testimony and public comment supported keeping the mascot. About 30 community members listened as school board member Emil Mackey testified that he had looked up the other mascots considered besides Thunder Bears on Urban Dictionary.

He pointed out that both “orca” and “senator” have offensive definitions on the website. “Bear” and “falcon,” the district’s existing high school mascots, also have alternative definitions.

Mackey argued that deciding what is or isn’t offensive off of an unmoderated online post could allow anyone to influence future decisions by making up posts online.  

“But if we can create what that symbolism is, and we own it and we shape it, we can make it a positive symbol,” Mackey said. “And that, to me, is the more powerful of the two choices.”

Thunder Mountain senior Josh Quinto testified that the Thunder Bear has in fact been an unofficial mascot for the district for several years. He said the districtwide drama, debate and forensics club and the joint high school wrestling team argue over who came up with it.

“It sounded silly, it was a joke but everyone liked the joke and it wasn’t meant to be racist, it was meant to be a fun joke between JD and TM,” Quinto said. “It’s like, ‘Hey, we’re the Thunder Bears. Not the Bears or the Falcons — we’re the Thunder Bears!’”

Quinto said he doesn’t understand the criticism surrounding the name. He is Alaska Native, and has grown up hearing about the racism his grandmother and mother have faced in their lives, but said neither of them consider the term offensive.

“To me this all seems kind of silly. It reminds me of when there was the big joke about the Starbucks cup just being red, being offensive,” Quinto said. “That’s kind of how I’m seeing it as someone who knows how my parents and grandparents faced racism.”

The committee will meet to discuss potential options for a replacement. It’s not yet clear if high school students will be asked to vote on the new mascot again.