The Manhasset and Sewanhaka school districts are considering the elimination of their Indian mascots.
To which we ask, what is there to consider?
The use of stereotypical Native American figures incorrectly called Indians and often depicted in war garb in 2020 is at best insensitive and at worst racist. It should end now.
That institutions of learning tasked with teaching young people American history should continue to perpetuate stereotypes of a group of people so often victimized in this country makes this particularly hard to fathom.
The call for both school districts to drop their “Indian” mascot came from community members, alumni and Native Americans as the Washington Redskins football team announced that it would retire its name, which Native Americans rightly called racist.
In response, they received equivocation.
“As a result of some community concern, the Board of Education and administration will be surveying the use of each of the school mascots to gauge their appropriateness to the school and community values,” Sewanhaka Central High School District Superintendent James Grossane said.
It would have been nice if the Sewanhaka school district did not need “some community concern” to put an end to students wearing Native American headdresses and carrying tomahawks – as seen as recently as 2017 in a homecoming parade.
It would be even nicer for Grossane to explain how an “Indian” mascot can be appropriate to the school and “community values,” unless he is saying that the Sewanhaka community is insensitive or ignorant or both to the conditions suffered by Native Americans.
Manhasset School Superintendent Vincent Butera responded to the call of more than 3,000 people who signed a petition calling for the elimination of the “Indian” mascot by citing the feelings of those who supported the symbol.
“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.”
We share the superintendent’s support for hearing both sides of an argument. But sometimes there is a right answer and sometimes there is a wrong answer, as is clearly the case in this instance.
Remember slavery? There were a lot of people who thought that was a good idea. Thankfully, that’s not subject to respectful consideration anymore.
Which is part of the point. What was once considered acceptable is no longer acceptable. It’s called learning.
To its credit, meetings conducted by the Manhasset school district offered an opportunity for actual Native Americans to explain the harm of “Indian” mascots.
“The most important reason is that Native Americans find the use of these mascots insulting and, in some cases, harmful because of the stereotypes they project,” explained Sadanyah FlowingWater, a founder and executive director of the nonprofit World Alliance of Indigenous Peoples, earlier in the year.
Jo Trigg, who graduated from Manhasset in 2004 and created the petition, had earlier noted that the American Psychological Association recommended the retiring of mascots depicting Native Americans in 2005.
“The use of American Indian mascots as symbols in schools and university athletic programs is particularly troubling because schools are places of learning,” said former APA President Ronald F. Levant. “These mascots are teaching stereotypical, misleading and too often insulting images of American Indians. These negative lessons are not just affecting American Indian students, they are sending the wrong message to all students.”
FlowingWater said at the Manhasset event the main reasons people want to keep mascots like Manhasset’s are nostalgia and convenience – an explanation supported by several Manhasset residents who spoke on behalf of keeping the mascot.
While nostalgia for the past may be understandable, it also can cover many sins.
For instance, we hope no one in Manhasset or the Sewanhaka school districts supports Confederate statues or the wearing of blackface based on a distorted view of the past for Blacks in this country.
The same is true of Native Americans.
The ancestors of living Native Americans arrived in what is now the United States at least 15,000 years ago. They developed organized societies with their own governing bodies that farmed, fished and hunted. Later they became doctors, lawyers and accountants.
But “Indian” mascots only feed into the stereotype of Native Americans as warriors. Or worse.
In many places in this country, including New York, Christopher Columbus is still celebrated for discovering America. There are two problems with this: Columbus landed in the Bahamas and never made it to the mainland of what is now the United States.
The second is that Native Americans were already here. In what is now the United States.
A good question for students might be to ask exactly what are we celebrating on Columbus Day?
Other states have now dispensed with the racist notion that Columbus discovered American by celebrating Indigenous People’s Day.
The subsequent European colonization of the Americas resulted in a precipitous decline in the Native American population through introduced disease, warfare, ethnic cleansing and slavery.
After its formation, the United States continued to wage war and perpetrate massacres against many Native American peoples, removed them from their ancestral homes and subjected them to one-sided treaties and to discriminatory government policies.
The NCAA adopted a policy in 2005 prohibiting colleges and universities from displaying “hostile and abusive racial/ethnic/national origin mascots, nicknames or imagery at any of the 88 NCAA championships.”
The Syracuse Saltine Warriors soon became the Orangemen and the St. John’s University Red Men the Red Storm, among others.
It is true that ethnic references did not go away entirely at colleges and universities. There are still the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame and the Florida State Seminoles.
In professional sports, the Chicago Blackhawks of the National Hockey League and Major League Baseball’s Atlanta Braves and Cleveland Indians continue to be accepted but not without one notable and long-overdue change.
In 2019, the Cleveland Indians eliminated the use of their “Chief Wahoo” logo, which featured a caricature of a Native American with red skin, an abnormally large nose and a toothy smile. 2019!
We hope the major league teams confront these issues at a later time.
For now, though, two school districts face this issue. And they should do the right thing and replace their mascots.