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November 22, 2022

New York to Schools: Evict the Indians

Nothing says “Happy Thanksgiving” like getting rid of the Native Americans.

Arguing that two decades is long enough for schools to keep Native American mascots and imagery, the state of New York has mandated that its schools and districts must drop these particular symbols by the end of the school year or face the possible forfeiture of state aid.

Whether districts contend that they’ve kept the symbols over the years because of strong community support or because their mascots and logos are respectful to Native Americans, the state’s Department of Education is no longer accepting excuses, according to a memo issued last week.

The controversy reached this point when the Cambridge Central School District was petitioned by a citizen in 2020 to address the fate of its “Indians” logo and mascot, which according to court documents dated from the 1950s. In June 2021, the district’s board of education voted to retire the “Indians” moniker, but weeks later, at the first board meeting that included newly elected members, the vote was made to rescind the previous board’s decision.

As Dillon Honyoust, one of those new board members and a member of the Onondaga Nation, stated in his court affidavit: “I … spoke with other Native Americans in the community, all of whom agreed with my sentiments that the District’s long-standing mascot and logo represents Native American strength, honor, (and) pride, just as it is a source of identity, strength, honor, and pride for students and alumni of the District. To me and many Native Americans in the Cambridge community, the ‘Indians’ nickname and logo has always been a positive symbol to portray the strength of Native American heritage.”

However, despite the community support for the name, the courts have not been kind to the school district. Its lawsuit against the state was dismissed in June of this year, although the district is still planning to appeal.

Political analyst Rick Moran sees through all the controversy, though. “The villains in this drama are the radical anti-traditionalists who never met a tradition they didn’t try to destroy,” he writes. “Native American activists see the mascots as a wedge issue that gets them publicity and sympathy from left-wing donors. Meanwhile, those communities who have taken pride in their Native American mascots and don’t see the need to change them are either going to have to obey the state department of education or go to court.” Remember, this had been suggested guidance for more than two decades, but the state never felt a need to act on it — until now.

Over the last few decades, we’ve seen countless high schools and colleges move away from Native American mascots and imagery, with that ripple effect finally reaching the professional ranks. There, the National Football League’s Washington Redskins dropped that name after 80-plus years to become the Commanders, and Cleveland’s Major League Baseball team switched this past season to become the Guardians after 106 seasons as the Indians. But in soothing the hurt feelings of a few activists, these professional teams antagonized and alienated a fanbase that was passionate about the old name and the “identity, strength, honor, and pride” the name evoked. (For now, MLB’s Atlanta Braves and the NFL’s Kansas City Chiefs have largely held to their names and imagery, despite calls for both to follow suit.)

In this case, though, the threat of withdrawing state aid is a significant stick to Cambridge and the few dozen other school districts that have held onto their politically incorrect names and logos. Even as we celebrate the week of Thanksgiving with its rich history of Pilgrims and Native Americans, the state of New York is trying to cancel the Indians instead of allowing local schools to honor them. And once the Native American imagery is cleansed, can other names deemed offensive to some — such as the Patriots or Warriors or Fighting Irish — be far behind?

High school names and mascots are meant to inspire school spirit. This writer’s particular alma mater is the home of the Vikings, while others in our league are the Bulldogs, Panthers, Patriots, Locomotives, Bluestreaks, Tigers, Golden Bears … and Indians. In fact, that town itself was named for a local chief.

These schools tend to have decades of tradition involved in their names. It seems to us that the state should ignore the perpetually offended and instead allow the kids and their communities to continue to take pride in their teams and their mascots.

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