In a letter to all school districts, the New York State Education Department is requiring that schools with a Native American mascot, team name and/or logos must replace them by the end of the 2022-23 school year.
Schools that want to keep Native American nicknames, logos or imagery will need approval from a recognized tribe. If districts don’t comply with the ruling, James N. Baldwin, the department’s senior deputy commissioner, said the penalties include the removal of school officers and the withholding of state aid.
The issue could end up affecting Mohonasen more than other Capital Region schools, as superintendent Shannon Shine addressed in a letter to parents, faculty/staff and community members.
“While we do not have a Native American mascot or any caricatured images of Native Americans,” Shine wrote, “we do have our logo depicting three Native Americans from the three tribes that our name, Mohonasen, is made up of: Mohawk, Onondaga, and Seneca, all members of the Iroquois Confederacy.
“At this time it is unclear what specific changes may be mandated which could potentially affect our name, Mohonasen, our designation as the Warriors, and/or our depiction of the three tribes via our logo.”
The issue originally goes back to 2001, when former Commissioner of Education Richard P. Mills issued a memorandum asking boards of education of schools with Native American mascots, nicknames and logos to replace them “as soon as practical.” Some districts complied, but others did not.
In Thursday’s letter, Baldwin reminded the districts of how the New York State Supreme Court ruled in June about the Cambridge Central School District’s refusal to change its “Indians” nickname, logo and mascot after its board of education voted to do so in June 2021.
After several school board seats changed hands, the new board voted to reinstate the mascot. A group of concerned parents petitioned the state education department, and commissioner Betty Rosa upheld the decision to change the mascot. Cambridge again challenged the decision to the state supreme court, but that also went in favor of Rosa.
Baldwin wrote, “Crucially, the court held that the Commissioner, ‘determined correctly that the continued use of the Indians nickname and imagery, given the 20 years that have passed since Commissioner Mills’ directive, and given the imperatives of the District’s Diversity Policy, was itself an abuse of discretion.’
“Thus,” Baldwin added, “the court’s decision establishes that public school districts are prohibited from utilizing Native American mascots. Arguments that community members support the use of such imagery or that it is ‘respectful’ to Native Americans are no longer tenable.”
Mechanicville Superintendent Kevin Kolakowski, whose school is nicknamed the Red Raiders, said any Native American imagery has been transitioned to the district academic crest, “which represents and depicts our intention and mission to be fully inclusive of all of our students which our District serves.” He added that the logo is a block “M”, approved by the board of education in 2021.
Kolakowski, however, does not see a need to change the nickname.
“There are a variety of both imagery and logos that represent a Red Raider – the name itself is independent of imagery, and we therefore will continue to associate under that independent title,” Kolakowski said.
In a statement, Roberto LoBianco, the public information specialist at Niskayuna, nicknamed the Silver Warriors, commended the state education department for its action.
“As part of our ongoing commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion, the district strives to ensure the words and imagery we use are consistent with our values and aligned with our vision of being an equitable community of lifelong learners. We will closely evaluate SED’s regulations once they are released,” LoBianco said.
David Blanchard, the superintendent of Schoharie Central School District, nicknamed the Indians, said he will work with the school community to determine how to proceed in a positive manner.
Calls to the Fonda-Fultonville [Braves] and Stillwater [Warriors] school districts were not returned. Other Capital Region school districts that are affected by this are the Ravena Indians, Glens Falls Indians, Corinth Tomahawks, Hoosic Valley Indians and Averill Park Warriors.
Nationally, schools and teams have been moving away from Native American nicknames, logos and imagery. Nationally, Washington’s football team is now known as the Commanders, while Cleveland’s baseball team went from the Indians to the Guardians. Locally, Siena changed from the Indians to the Saints in 1989. The Canajoharie Central School District changed its nickname to the Cougars in 2002.
Chad Arnold, Shenandoah Briere, Ted Remsnyder & Adam Shinder contributed to this report.