Manhasset Board of Education eyes mascot

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The Manhasset school board held a discussion of the district's 'Indian' mascot on Thursday. (Screencap by Rose Weldon)

Current students, alumni, longtime residents and representatives of Long Island’s indigenous nations turned out in droves over Zoom to discuss the Manhasset school district’s Indian mascot for the better part of a nearly three-hour meeting of the school board held Thursday night.

The district began talks around the mascot two months after a Change.org petition with over 3,000 signatures against it was created around the time the former Washington Redskins announced that they would be retiring their name and logo. Alumni and current students alike referred to the mascot as racist and outdated, an idea reiterated by representatives of the Montaukett and Shinnecock nations on Long Island.

As a number of residents waited to speak, Superintendent Vincent Butera told the public that no decision on the mascot would be made that night.

“Regardless of your feelings and opinions on this issue, we can be certain that there are many in our community who have the opposite feelings and opinions,” Butera said. “And out of respect for that, I ask that we temper our reactions, and show our students that we can be understanding and respectful of people who have different points of view tonight is about just that, allowing viewpoints to be shared and understanding the issue so that I, working in partnership with the board, can establish a process that allows us to make recommendations that are consistent with our goal of promoting equity inclusivity and dignity for all people and to examine our practices and conditions against that standard.”

Butera first welcomed representatives from the Montaukett Indian Nation, the Shinnecock Indian Nation, the Ungechauk Nation, the Setalcott Nation and the Matinecock Nation, whose Chief Martin Lone Wolf Jones was among the first to speak. Jones began by greeting the assembled in his native language and discussed his nation’s history and connection to the Manhasset area.

“I’m just grateful to be a part of this conference meeting if I can share some input into how we feel about that mascot, the, for lack of a better term, insignia that you use to identify the Manhasset High School and the Indian name, that’s not for discussion tonight,” Jones said. “I just want to introduce myself and let you know that myself and my other two chiefs, we are all in agreement as to how we feel. And I’ll let that be for now.”

Helen Sells of the Setalcott Nation said the meeting was an opportunity to “educate” the community.

“I know many people have visions of Indians and even with my grandkids at school, they say that we don’t exist, but we do,” Sells said. “We’re still here. We fought in the wars, we also are doctors lawyers, your teachers are in all paths of life and I think it’s important for people to know that we still are here and we look Like you do, each and every one of us. We don’t walk around with war clothes on and looking for fights, we want to live in peace and to bring our country together.”

Sandi Brewster-Walker, executive director of the Montaukett nation, suggested that the mascot be put “on hold” and the community properly informed about the history of indigenous people in the area before it was changed.

“How we really look at this issue is that as for the mascot, we think you should put it on hold, and use it as a teaching moment and bring your community together in different programs, have students that participate and help develop the programs, as well as some of the adult members, because too often, mascots will change and everyone goes forgets all about the issue,” Brewster-Walker said. “They don’t go into too finding out who the Native Americans of the area are. We have become invisible and if you just change the logo without learning about us, you’re keeping us invisible.”

Public comment was then opened, and 29 residents, alumni and parents voiced their opinions on the prospect.

Resident and alumna Leslie Koch said that she thought changing it would set a good example for the district’s students.

“I think it’s really important that we change the mascot. I think there’s a lot of controversy around it,” Koch said. “It’s dividing our community, it’s really important that we come together and find a mascot that really represents our values and Manhasset, our values of diversity, inclusivity, and fair-mindedness. I think we need to consider the feelings of the Native American community that find this symbol offensive and also the members of our
community as well. My son loves Shelter Rock School, and I just, I really feel like we can change the mascot and just make a difference to show it sends the right message to our kids.”

Class of 2013 alumnus Stephen Bourget said that he was “mildly uncomfortable” with the mascot while running on Manhasset’s track team.

“This community is just as valuable to me now as it was 10 years ago, and I think all of that value, what it was then and what it is now, will hold true without needing this mascot,” Bourget said.

“Our mascot perpetuates a negative stereotype in characterizing indigenous peoples,” Manhasset High School student Bernadette Holm said. “And I don’t believe that that is something that we should take pride in.”

2017 alumnus Gavin Olsen, a student at Harvard University, said the mascot didn’t appear to be a way to honor indigenous people.

“I don’t understand how slapping a cartoon picture of an Indian onto a helmet and having teams of majority-white people run around and be able to play sport honors people, and specifically persisting to do something when they have told you it bothers them does not work,” Olsen said. “Right now I’m on the Harvard football team, and one of my best friends is in the Cherokee Nation. And when I told him my high school’s team name was the Indians, he was appalled.”

Evan Mandery, a parent in the district and a professor, suggested that the Manhasset team could be renamed in honor of athlete Jim Brown, a local who played lacrosse for the school district.

“Brown is a problematic figure in some ways, but he does a very distinguished record as a civil rights leader,” Mandery said. And he’s probably the best athlete in American history. And he’s from Manhasset. I certainly surrender any proprietary interest in that name, but I mostly offer it as an example of the type of name that can honor Manhasset’s rich academic and athletic traditions, and also sent the signal that we promote inclusivity and measure our symbols by the effect that they have on people.”

Mandery added that his son, half of whose heritage came from the Indian subcontinent, had written his college admissions essay on being half-Indian in a town with an Indian mascot. Biju Abraham, a district parent of Indian descent, was one of several speakers who discussed using the term ‘Indian’ to refer to Native Americans when it is now seen to refer to those from the Indian subcontinent.

“It’s never really been clear to me why a historically inaccurate term, which, we all know the story of how the Native Americans were mislabeled as Indians by Columbus and it persisted it all this time,” Abraham said. “Being part of the Indian American community in Manhasset, it’s also very jarring to see the word issue.”

Susie Petruccelli, an author and documentarian who specializes in social justice in global sports, as well as a parent of three students in the Manhasset district, quoted the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s decision on mascots concerning ethnicities.

“‘The NCAA objects to institutions using racial, ethnic or national origin references in their intercollegiate athletics programs,'” she said. “This is the decision of the National Collegiate Athletic Association, the governing body of collegiate sports in this country and an organization that so many members of our community have either taken part in, like myself, are currently taking part in, or hope to one day take part in. The Manhasset athletics department is 15 years out of compliance with this NCAA policy.”

Other residents were not happy with the idea.

“I think it’s actually insulting to change the mascot,” Pam Perulli, a 36-year resident and alumna, said. “The Indians represent strength and resilience. We’re not making fun of them, we’re proud of them. They found this land. They’re still here. Way back when I was here, I went to the high school, I did not go to the elementary school, but they used to take field trips to Shelter Rock and teach the kids about the history if they don’t do anything more. So instead of erasing everything, maybe we should learn. And this whole generation is about erasing what was. It’s not racist to honor somebody.”

Tricia Dessi, a parent of Manhasset alumni, also said that she didn’t feel the mascot was “racist or discriminatory.”

“I’m very proud to be a Manhasset Indian, I’m proud to raise my children to be Manhasset Indians,” Dessi said. “You don’t necessarily need sports to be an Indian, we all are. It does represent power, resilience, strength. And I think that we’re raising our children to be that way. I don’t think it’s insulting. I think it’s actually continuing the history of Manhasset.”

Jorge Matos also said he didn’t see the mascot as racist but as “a proud, strong figure,” and suggested putting the topic to a vote in the wider community.

“I think if we were to remove it, we would be making the Native Americans that were here invisible, we would have nothing else speaking out about them and how this was their land,” Matos said. “I do think it’s a good idea to get exactly what their feelings are.  I think it’s more a question of the imagery. So I think to disqualify that would be to make them more invisible, where we want to promote their history here.”

District parent Logan Karropolous equated changing the Indian mascot with changing the name of Manhasset itself, which has origins in Native American language.

“The one question that I would have for everybody who wants to change the name of the mascot or the name itself is, would you be willing to change the name of Manhasset?” Karropolous said.

Longtime resident and parent Lauren Turano Baranello said that the “tradition” needed to stay.

“I was born and raised in Manhasset, and I’m extremely proud to be a Manhasset Indian,” Baranello said. “I’m 50 years old and I survived it and I wasn’t offended by anything. And I feel like there’s tradition there. What is left of any bit of tradition left in this world is being stripped. ”

As a counter, Manhasset alumna Regan Lavin said that she was “embarrassed” by the mascot.

“I am not trying to be disrespectful, I loved living in Manhasset but I am not honored,” Lavin said. “I’m honestly embarrassed when people ask me what the mascot for my high school is. And if you’re not indigenous, you don’t get to decide what’s offensive. People’s rights and lives are more important than the question of what our mascot is.”

Brewster-Walker suggested that a committee be put together of students, community members, and representatives of the nations for further discussion.

“You say you’re honoring us, too often people try to honor the Native American community, and they put in an image of Indians that live west of the Mississippi,” Brewster-Walker said.  “That’s why you really have to know your history before you just grab any Indian, but they put up an image that looks like Tonto, who wasn’t even Native American. This image shows who we were supposed to be, instead of who we are.”

The Manhasset Board of Education will next meet Nov. 3 at 7 p.m., viewable at youtube.com/user/ManhassetSchools.

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