Sheriff's Dept. Law and Justice Center

A deputy with the Gallatin County Sheriff's Office works at the security checkpoint on Monday, July 13, 2020, at the Law and Justice Center. 

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The Gallatin County sheriff said he is looking into the history of a yellow patch on both arms of Gallatin County deputies’ uniforms in the wake of national movements to get rid of imagery offensive to Indigenous people.

In the center of the patch is a depiction of a Native American with long hair and what appear to be white feathers attached the back of the person’s head.

Sheriff Brian Gootkin said he wants to know more about the image’s history before deciding whether it should be removed. This comes after the professional football team in Washington, D.C., decided Monday to dispense with its controversial nickname.

Gootkin said he’s reaching out to former Gallatin County sheriffs to figure out the significance of the image and to Native Americans to see if the patch is offensive before removing it. However, he said, he hasn’t received any complaints about the patch, only an inquiry from an elder in Rosebud County.

Gootkin said the patch might have been part of the uniform to show respect for Native American people here.

“There may be a reason as far as a warrior spirit,” he said. “I don’t know what it is. I want to find out first before I make any decisions.”

Gootkin told the Chronicle that Custer County Sheriff Tony Harbaugh, the longest tenure sheriff in the state, and the oldest living former Gallatin County Sheriff John Onsted were unable to tell him the history behind the image. Harbaugh told Gootkin that he removed a similar image from the Custer County Sheriff’s logo when he first was elected to office.

Rachel Philips, research coordinator for the Gallatin History Museum, estimated the patch has been part of deputies’ uniforms since the mid-20th century, based on photos and articles. She was unable to find anything about the design’s origins or its meaning.

Countrywide there has been a push to abolish mascots that are offensive to Native Americans.

On Monday, the professional football team in Washington, D.C., announced it would drop the “Redskins” name and go back to the drawing board for a new logo after pressure from sponsors and decades of criticism, according to the Associated Press. It’s unclear when the football team will make the changes.

Walter Fleming, head of the Native American Studies department at Montana State University, said the sheriff’s office needed to change the image because the iconography isn’t obvious. He said the image lacks context and leaves its meaning up for interpretation.

“We do know that American Indians represent a higher than average population in the state justice system,” Fleming said.

American Indians and Alaska Natives make up nearly 7% of Montana’s population, according to a U.S. Census population estimate taken last year. However, American Indians and Alaska Natives are disproportionally represented in state prisons, making up 21% of the state’s prison population, according to the Montana Department of Corrections.

“(The image) does lend itself to thinking about the inequities in the judicial system,” Fleming said.

Fleming said the image could be interpreted as law enforcement targeting Native Americans. Or connected to the higher incarceration rate of Native Americans in Montana. Or it could be homage to the Gallatin Valley originally being native land.

However, Fleming said, there is “a lot on the negative side” in terms of how somebody could view the image. And, he said, that goes against Bozeman and the university trying to be a welcoming place for minorities and Native Americans coming to MSU from different parts of the state.

“Times change,” Fleming said. “What may have been seen as an innocent gesture, because of circumstances of lately, have taken a negative turn.”

Gootkin disputed that the image meant law enforcement targets Native Americans here. He said that’s “just not the way we do business here.” Gootkin said he is willing to meet with people who are offended by the image and is open to making the change if people are upset with it.

He said he thinks there’s a tradition linked to the image and assumes it is in “absolute respect” to Native Americans.

“You don’t mess with history until you know about it,” he said. “So I want to educate myself.”

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Freddy Monares can be reached at fmonares@dailychronicle.com or at 406-582-2630.

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