In the 1981 West Irondequoit High School yearbook, there’s a photo of a kid dressed in full Native American garb, headdress and all, the IHS Indians mascot at a football game.
There’s also a senior photo and a couple candid shots of a kid named Mike MacAdam, who had a flat stomach and a ton of hair on his head.
The recent news that major league baseball’s Cleveland Indians would be phasing out “Indians” in favor of a yet-to-be-determined logo and nickname comes on the heels of a similar shift by the NFL’s Washington Football Team.
These events re-opened the debate about whether school sports teams with names like “Indians” and “Redskins” should reconsider, and there are more than a few in the Capital Region that still cling to them, citing tradition and identity while claiming that their choice reflects respect for Native Americans and is not poking fun at them.
Here’s another way to reflect respect for Native Americans: change your nickname.
Guess what you — a place of secondary or higher education, and not a pro sports franchise trying to push merchandise — get out of the deal: an opportunity to educate.
As 2020 has illustrated in graphic form, people in the U.S. don’t like to be told what to do. A horrible, meaningless phrase that has come into vogue is “cancel culture,” often used as a reactionary accusation when someone is held to account for their actions.
You know what true cancel culture is? Christian residential schools that were established in North America in the late 1800s to assimilate Native American children into Euro-American culture. The intention was to literally cancel a culture.
In January of 2019, I had to educate myself about Christian residential schools (guess it wasn’t in the curriculum at IHS in 1981) for a column about former UAlbany lacrosse star Lyle Thompson. Born in the Onondaga Nation near Syracuse, he was playing in a pro lacrosse road game in Philadelphia when he was the subject of an ignorant comment by the public address announcer, who urged the home crowd by saying “Let’s snip the ponytail!”
That struck a deep chord with Thompson, who sports a thin braid all the way down his back, and other Iroquois players in the league, since chopping off Native kids’ long hair was one of the first things that happened to Thompson’s ancestors at the Christian residential schools.
What does all this have to do with seemingly innocuous high school mascots and nicknames?
The motivation and intention may be different, but the common thread and result is to marginalize and dehumanize a segment of our population, an actual race of people, that is already struggling to maintain its dignity and identity.
Yeah, there are more pressing concerns to Native Americans than sports nicknames.
But anything that reduces them to caricature and trivializes their existence makes it that much easier to ignore their voice and dismiss the problems they face.
This one is so easily addressed, too. Just ask Siena College. And you get a teachable moment out of the bargain.
Some schools in the Capital Region have already said they’ll change their mascot and logo, but not the nickname. This seems like a half measure that doesn’t represent real change or demonstrate a genuine or at least full understanding of the issue.
Some, like Canajoharie, which switched from Redskins to Cougars in 2000, got on board early.
The New York State Department of Education made a push in this direction back then, and this summer state senator Pete Harckham introduced a bill that would require school districts with race-based mascots to open up community conversations about the topic at least once a year.
That’s what my high school did, 19 years ago, when the Irondequoit school board voted unanimously to retire “Indians,” then offered a vote that included the student body on what the new one would be. They’ve been the Eagles since 2002-03. I’m guessing there are still people there who hate it.
In guidelines and explanation of the decision, the board said “While the District’s intentions were good and honorable, the Board now knows that perceptions by some Native Americans of the name, images, related actions, and the stereotypes of Native Americans which they represent, have been hurtful and demeaning.
“The Board believes this decision affirms human dignity and respect for all people and groups different from ourselves. …
“The Board believes the retiring of the Indian name and images is in keeping with those values and promotes the creation of a culture of decency and respect.”
My hometown’s name is an Iroquois word that means “where the land meets the water,” apparently in reference to its eponymous bay off Lake Ontario.
So it seems natural for the Irondequoit High teams to have been called “Indians.”
The better part of our nature says it’s time for something different.