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Our Undying Past

About that mascot ...

This weekend I’ll be heading off on a book tour along the New York-Pennsylvania border. Being on the fringe of Iroquois country, it’s the very territory that’s featured in my historical novel Visions of Teaoga. It’s also an area touched by a hot national debate – about the term “redskin” and its use as a sports nickname.

You no doubt know about the pressure on the pro football Washington Redskins to change its team name, and the organization’s refusal to do so. Critics call the term an anachronistic slur, while the other side argues that it's benign, even respectful.

Slur or not, the Redskins name is still in use by several dozen high schools around the country, most of them majority-white. And one of them is Sayre High School, located just four miles north of Tioga Point, the epicenter of the Indian-settler conflict zone that Visions of Teaoga captures.

North of Sayre, in upstate and western New York, seven other schools have mascots with Indian references: the Watkins Glen Senecas, the Southern Cayuga Chiefs, and the Indians of Candor, Groton, Odessa-Montour, Owego Free Academy and Stamford. This is according to an article two weeks ago in the Elmira Star-Gazette. Only one school in that region, Sayre High, keeps the R-word.

The Redskins nickname is a thing of the past now on the collegiate scene since the last two schools gave it up a few years. This followed an NCAA policy that bans the use of Indian mascots during its tournaments unless a team gets the consent of local Native American tribes, as the Florida State Seminoles did.

Tom Phillips, superintendent of the Watkins Glen School District, told Star-Gazette reporter Andrew Legare that he believes the use of Indian mascots in his region’s high schools conveys respect: “Being Senecas honors those who founded this place."

Not all would agree.

"There's a lot of research that shows the demeaning impact a Native American mascot can have," Oneida Indian Nation official Joel Barkin told Legare. "If we're trying to teach our kids to be well-rounded, thoughtful people, and that's the role of the school, there needs to be a larger discussion about whether we're accomplishing that.”

According to a Capitol News Service article last year, more than 40 percent of the high schools that abandoned the Redskins nickname said they acted in response to pressure from students or concerned citizens, and often over the objections of older alumni who argued that it forsook a part of the school’s history.

That exact conflict played out at Cooperstown High in upstate New York last year. After a group of students spoke out, the board voted to change the team name from the Redskins to the Hawkeyes. In appreciation, the nearby Oneida Indian Nation donated $10,000 to help pay for new uniforms.

C.J. Hebert, superintendent of the Cooperstown Central School District, told the Star-Gazette’s Legare that the decision was met with resistance. "We really phrased it that times have changed, and the connotation and words have changed over time as well, and people have become more socially aware,” Hebert said. “In this day and age, it wasn't acceptable."

Two other high schools elsewhere in New York state, Canisteo-Greenwood and Lancaster, also have had recent discussions about dropping their Redskins nickname.

There’s no such sign of change at Sayre, where the fight song is “On the Warpath.” Sayre superintendent Dean Hosterman declined Legare’s request for an interview.

It must be said that a few majority-Indian high schools use the Redskins team name. One is Red Mesa in Arizona. Tommie Yazzie, a Navaho and Red Mesa’s superintendent, told the Capitol News Service that the term isn’t derogatory if Indians use it within their “cultural connection,” but he feels white schools should avoid it. He also objects to the common use of tomahawk chops and war whoops. “We have respect for warfare,” he said. “You don’t use the same type of gestures and hollering and bring that back into a sporting event.”

Tim Giago, an Oglala Lakota and founder and first president of the Native American Journalists Association, wrote in a recent opinion piece about his decades of activism against the use of Indian mascots. “Can't the average American understand that it is not an honor to have our culture stolen, mimicked, and insulted by fanatical football and baseball fans?” he wrote. “... Find an Indian and walk up to him or her and say, ‘Hey, Redskin,’ and see how honored that person is. And then stand back before you get punched.”

There actually is a new national effort to promote listening rather than punching.
The White House Initiative on American Indian and Alaska Native Education and the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights are kicking off a unique “school environment listening tour” to gather input about improving the climate for Indian students. The focus will be on bullying, student discipline -- and offensive imagery and symbolism. The first talk was Oct. 10 in Wisconsin, with a future stop set for Troy, N.Y.

Oneida spokesman Barkin is one who promotes the talking path.

As he told Elmira reporter Legare, "The vast majority of people don't mean any harm [by the mascots] and they don't make any association, but it's not necessarily those people being impacted by this. It's important to have that discussion and make sure people in areas where there's either a lot of contact or no contact with the Native American community aren't only being portrayed as a mascot or just read about in November (around Thanksgiving). This is a living, breathing part of our country."
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