New York state’s education commissioner, Richard P. Mills, has asked all school districts to stop using American Indian mascots “as soon as practical.”
But the commissioner stopped short of requiring an immediate statewide ban on the use of Indian names, symbols, and mascots for school athletic programs and the like. Instead, he is requesting all districts to start discussing the issue right away, if they haven’t already done so.
In an April 5 memorandum to public school board presidents and superintendents, Mr. Mills pointed out that most Native Americans view schools’ use of their cultural and religious symbols as “disparaging and disrespectful.” He added: “I have concluded that the use of Native American symbols or depictions as mascots can become a barrier to building a safe and nurturing school community and improving academic achievement for all students.”
But the letter didn’t go far enough in addressing the issue, said Harry B. Wallace, the chief of the Unkechaug tribe on the Poospatuck Reservation in Mastic, who served as a consultant to the commissioner in his consideration of the matter. Mr. Mills “should have simply mandated that there be no racism in school districts with the use of an offensive symbol,” Mr. Wallace said.
Paul R. Doyle, the superintendent of the 1,800-student Saranac Lake Central Schools, said a mandate would have been easier on local boards, which have been left to resolve debates about the matter on their own. He called Mr. Mills’ “advisory memo,” issued two years after the commissioner raised the issue publicly, “too little, too late.”
But Mr. Doyle said the absence of a state ban has also given local school boards a chance to “act courageously.”
After several months of public discussions, the Saranac board passed a resolution in February, by a vote of 6-1, to retire “with respect” the Redskins name.
—Mary Ann Zehr
A version of this article appeared in the April 18, 2001 edition of Education Week