Equity & Diversity

Rights Commission Calls For End To Indian Team Names

By Mary Ann Zehr — April 25, 2001 6 min read
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Thomas J. Rosato knows firsthand how explosive the issue of getting rid of an American Indian name and mascot can be for school sports.

He and another trustee lost their seats on the school board of the 2,300- student Onteora Community School District in New York a year ago over the issue. The two had joined a 4-3 board majority in directing Onteora Middle-High School to stop calling its sports teams the “Indians.”

Mr. Rosato and the other trustee maintained that the moniker was insensitive to Native Americans. When the two ran for re-election after the vote, the community replaced them with two new trustees who had run on a platform promising to reinstate the Indians name.

Weighing in on what often has become a sharp debate in communities across the country, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights this month urged non-Indian schools that use Native American names and mascots for sports teams to end the practice.

“The commission believes that the use of Native American images and nicknames in school is insensitive and should be avoided,” the nonbinding, April 13 statement from the commission said. “In addition, some Native American and civil rights advocates maintain that these mascots may violate anti-discrimination laws.”

The commission took its stance only days after a similar advisory statement by the commissioner of education for New York state, Richard P. Mills. And just last week, citing their potential to offend, school boards in Blacksburg, Va., and Laconia, N.H., voted to ban Indian mascots.

Proponents of schools’ dropping the use of American Indian images and names said such statements offer important opportunities for education and awareness on Native American issues in general.

“It’s to the betterment of everyone if we can get past the mascot issue and start talking about the real issues that circle around the stereotypical representation of American Indians,” said Ellen J. Staurowsky, an associate professor of sports sociology at Ithaca College in Ithaca, N.Y.

Yvonne C. Novack, the manager of the Minnesota education department’s Indian education office and a member of the Chippewa tribe on the White Earth Reservation, credited a 1988 advisory statement by the state school board with prompting many school districts in that state to change.

“It made an impact,” she said. “We’ve gone from 50 school districts using Indian names down to nine. It was a learning activity for many of the schools and students.”

Not a Mandate

But many school officials and community members say that until such statements carry the weight of law, they will not have an impact on how their districts deal with the issue.

“If it becomes a federal law, obviously we’ll change. Until it does, we won’t,” said Gordon Cox, the chairman of the school board of the Alvarado, Texas, school district, which has 3,300 students. The Alvarado board voted two years ago to continue to call its sports teams the Indians, after some Native American activists petitioned the board to change it.

Following Mr. Rosato’s defeat for the Onteora school board in New York, the new slate of board members reinstated the name Indians to the district’s sports teams. But the matter didn’t end there. The board voted 4-2 last week to put the question to the community next month in a nonbinding referendum.

Mr. Rosato argues that holding a referendum is a bad idea because it will resurrect the controversy. “This community has been deeply divided, and the wounds have not healed,” he said.

But Martin Millman, the school board president, countered: “I don’t think it’s going to stir up anything more than it did more than one and a half years ago, when it was very volatile and we had 300 or 400 people showing up at school board meetings.”

The issue has divided many communities. The school board of the 3,400-student Menominee Area schools in Wisconsin experienced a similar shake-up several years ago when board members voted to change the Menominee “Indians” to “Mustangs.” Three school board members were ousted because the issue “wasn’t taken to the community,” said Marshall Quilling, who is in his 29th year as a trustee.

“That’s where the problem came,” he said.

Contradictions?

Mr. Millman contends that the Civil Rights Commission’s position contradicts the federal government’s own practices. “Why is it OK for the U.S. government to call a piece of its military equipment the Apache,” he said, “but not for a little school in the Catskills that has had this heritage for 50 years” to call its sports teams the Indians?

Indeed, the civil rights commissioners themselves reflect the lack of national consensus on whether hundreds of schools across the United States should stop using names like “Redskins,” “Chiefs,” and “Warriors,” and accompanying Indian mascots or logos for their sports teams.

“Anyone who has seen non-Indians using these symbols knows that it’s nearly always demeaning or stereotypical,” said Elsie M. Meeks, the commissioner who drafted the statement and a member of the Oglala Lakota tribe in South Dakota.

Particularly objectionable, she said, are posters used by rival teams that carry such slogans as “Scalp the warriors,” or “Massacre the Indians.” Whether intended or not, such slogans are racial slurs, she said.

Russell G. Redenbaugh, a commissioner who voted against issuing the statement, disagreed. “These churchy, preachy, do-the-right-thing and be-politically-correct pronouncements ... make us look foolish and distract us from spending our limited capital on things that could change the lives of people,” he said.

Arduous Process

What most observers do agree on is that for many communities, avoiding a backlash for eliminating a well-established American Indian team name requires a long, arduous educational process.

Using Native American images for the Raiders sports teams at Lebanon High School in New Hampshire has been an issue for more than a decade, said Nan Daniels, the chairwoman of the Lebanon school board. A school committee recently studied the issue for two years.

This month, in a 7-2 vote, the school board passed a resolution dropping all Native American symbolism connected with the Raiders. That means the school will get rid of its mascot, a profile of an Indian brave with a ponytail and a feather, that appears on school signs and is painted on Lebanon High’s gym floor.

“The committee and school board are tired of this being revisited every couple of years and being divisive in the community,” said Ms. Daniels, who originally opposed changing the symbolism. She said she now feels the change is necessary “in this day and age.”

In Laconia, N.H., George Stryker, a Native American and the owner of the Standing Bear gift shop, said it would take a while for local residents there to work through the issue. Mr. Stryker, whose mother is Mohawk and whose father is of Cherokee and Dutch descent, has served on a committee for the 2,400-student Laconia school district to decide whether its sports teams should still be called Sachem, a Native American word that means either “Indian chief” or “holy man,” depending on interpretation.

The school board decided last week to eliminate all Indian images and the mascot accompanying Sachem, but to continue exploring what to do about the name. Mr. Stryker wishes the board had eliminated the name, too, but he said he realizes board members have to consider constituents’ views.

“I want to educate them,” he said. “You wouldn’t call your team the ‘Catholics’ and have a fellow dressed like a Pope going around and sprinkling holy water.”

But, he said, “this community has used the name for 50 years. There is pride in the name. White people need to do things in steps. That’s the way they think, I guess.”

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A version of this article appeared in the April 25, 2001 edition of Education Week as Rights Commission Calls For End To Indian Team Names

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