It has been almost 20 years since then-state Education Commissioner Richard P. Mills wrote to more than 700 school districts instructing them to end the use of Native American-themed mascots, nicknames and logos “as soon as practical.”
But over the ensuing two decades, little changed.
Since 2001, a small number of schools have made such changes, leaving most Native American-themed nicknames in place, including more than a dozen in the greater Capital Region – and six that use the term “Indians.”
This week, the Cleveland Indians major league baseball team announced that it will discontinue the use of its Indians name, after the 2021 season. The NFL’s Washington Football Team removed its “Redskins” nickname in July.
The time is now to make these changes at the high school level, according to state Sen. Peter Harkham D-Westchester County. He introduced legislation in July that would give schools three years to remove any race-based mascots or lose state funding.
“These mascots are really a scab and a sore for not just the Native Americans, but for a whole host of groups who feel disenfranchised,” Harkham said earlier this week.
In the Capital Region, six high schools have an Indians name – Cambridge, Coxsackie-Athens, Glens Falls, Hoosic Valley, Ravena-Coeymans-Selkirk, Schoharie — and the summer baseball American Legion-affiliated Schenectady Indians.
Other Native American-themed names locally include Corinth Tomahawks; Fonda-Fultonville Braves; Colonie Garnet Raiders; and Mechanicville Red Raiders. Also, there are a host of schools that use the Warriors nickname, including Mohonasen, Stillwater and Niskayuna’s Silver Warriors. Shenendehowa retains the name of the Plainsmen, but has adjusted its logo through the years.
Siena College removed its Indians name in the 1980s to the now familiar Saints and Canajoharie removed its own “Redskins” name in favor of the Cougars in 2000. Back before it merged into becoming Schenectady High School, Mont Pleasant used the name Red Raiders.
Perry Ground, an enrolled member of the Onondaga tribe from the Turtle Clan, is a professional storyteller and cultural educator teaching about Native Americans for the past 30 years.
He is familiar with Mills’ memo and the slow change away from the Native American-themed mascots and he makes an eye-opening argument for change.
“We have the Cougars, the Hawks, the Hawaii Rainbows, there is no other human racial group or ethnic group that we use to describe teams,” Ground said. “Pirates I will put in a slightly different group because that is an occupation, but we don’t have a racial group that we say why are there no longer teams called the Negroes, the Hispanics, whatever borderline or beyond the borderline term to describe a racial or cultural group when we apply it to sports teams.”
Canajoharie’s change in 2000, one year before Mills’ memo, wasn’t embraced by all residents.
“It’s a small town, small community and people identified with Canajoharie football, it was one of the first area teams that had football and there was a long history of being the Redskins in Canajoharie, a lot of pride with that,” former Canajoharie football coach Ken Sullivan said. “Feelings were hurt, maybe not feelings, but it was uncomfortable for some people, but over time people realized that it was the right thing to do.”
In nearby Cooperstown, the then-Redskins changed their name to the Hawkeyes in 2013 when current Mohonasen Warriors athletic director David Bertram was a tennis and basketball coach in the school district.
His wife and her family are from Cooperstown and Bertram had to manage both sides of the argument.
“You had a lot of people that were steadfast on the Redskins and still think they are the Redskins, which they have that right to believe that as well,” Bertram said.
The Oneida Nation made a $10,000 contribution to the school to assist in the transition to the Hawkeyes.
“We knew they had a part in this and they wanted to make sure it was done the right way and they knew it would put a strain on the school as well,” Bertram said. “You think of athletics and things like that, we have Redskins on our uniforms that had to be changed when we moved from this.”
Change could be on the horizon at several schools regarding Native American-themed names.
Cambridge could make a change as early as this spring.
“We have had many requests from folks in our community to reconsider the use of our mascot,” Cambridge schools Superintendent Douglas Silvernell said in an email response. “There were many comments in open forum during our November BOE [Board of Education] meeting.
“At the last BOE meeting I suggested a draft timeline to the BOE for their consideration to review this issue. The timeline suggests a decision in March of 2021.”
Coxsackie-Athens athletic director Ryan Nacarrato is in his second year with the Indians and has embraced the conversation about change.
“I do know that it has been a discussion before I got here and more now with the kind of expedited approach from major league organizations, professional sports and colleges are taking,” Nacarrato said. “I do see us eliminating feathers 100 percent in the future with different items, logos lingering.
“As far as the Indians possibly that may be adjusted as well.”
The request for change comes not only from school district residents, but local Native American representatives.
“The Native American trustees of the museum have encouraged the Schoharie Central School District Board to consider changing their mascot to something that is more inclusive and culturally sensitive,” Cassandra Miller, marketing and communications manager at the Iroquois Indian Museum in Howes Caves said in an email to The Daily Gazette. “The trustees believe the current mascot reinforces stereotypes within the school community.”
The Schoharie Board of Education has made no firm commitment to date.
“The Schoharie Central School District received several members of the school community discussing the mascot at the July board meeting,” school Superintendent David Blanchard said in an email reply. “The Board of Education listened to the public comment but has not discussed making a change to the school mascot.
“The district Equity Committee will be working on this issue with students, staff and representatives from the local Iroquois Museum.”
The Mechanicville City School District said it is committed to a logo change but is adamant in keeping its Red Raiders name.
“The mascot name or Red Raiders is not up for discussion as the Board of Education is committed to maintaining the proud history of our school and Athletic Department identity,” Potter wrote in a November memo inviting individuals onto a committee regarding a logo redesign. “It is the goal of this committee to develop, design, and select a new logo that is not racially or ethically insensitive.”
He reiterated in the final lines of his memo that Mechanicville would remain the Red Raiders.
“We did some research and there are dozens of Red Raider mascots across the country that have zero affiliation with Native American heritage,” Potter replied in an email. “This fact, allows us the ability to keep our name, which has tradition and develop an appropriate logo that is culturally responsive.”
Ground disagrees with any school that continues to use a Native American-themed name out of tradition.
“When people say we’ve always used this name, yes because somebody a long time ago knew that it was racist and didn’t care,” Ground said. “Then it became the tradition and people didn’t realize that these were sometimes racist undertones, sometimes overt overtones and they didn’t care.
“If your tradition is not caring about being racist, I’m sorry, you are ethically incorrect in that.”
Ground, who is a board member of the Iroquois Indian Museum in Howes Cave, said the organization is also making a change.
“We are in the process of changing our name to at least take out the word Indian. We are now referring to ourselves without that term, but we are looking to make maybe a wholesale change to our name,” Ground said. “That is something that we are in the process of now, hoping that it leads the way to other people, including school districts making similar changes.”
The Daily Gazette contacted New York State Department of Education interim Commissioner Betty Rosa on Wednesday for comment. Her press office replied that day that “we’re looking into this and will get back to you,” but no further reply was received by Friday.