ROTTERDAM — The Mohonasen Central School District will not be required to change its name under proposed state regulations released Monday pertaining to public schools’ use of Indigenous mascots and imagery, though questions remain about its “Warrior” nickname.
The regulations, handed down during a Board of Regents meeting, make clear that districts must commit to eliminating the use of Indigenous names, logos and mascots by the end of the current academic year, including any “name, symbol or image that depicts or refers to Indigenous persons, tribes, nations, individuals, customs, symbols or traditions.”
But public schools, school buildings and school districts named after an “Indigenous tribe” will not be required to change under the regulations, which are expected to be adopted in the spring following a 60-day public comment period.
The proposed regulations provide some clarity for districts like Mohonasen, where Superintendent Shannon Shine raised the possibility last month that the district may have to change its name in light of the new state policy. The district’s name comes from three Indigenous nations belonging to the Iroquois Confederacy: Mohawk, Onondaga and Seneca.
The policy, which has been floated for more than two decades, was made formal in a letter the state Education Department sent to schools throughout the state last month notifying them that districts must stop using Native American imagery by the end of the current academic year or risk losing state funding.
The policy has been talked about since 2001, when then-Education Commissioner Richard Mills issued a memorandum asking school districts to stop using the imagery, prompting actions from districts across the state.
But dozens of schools in New York still use Native American mascots and imagery, including the Stillwater Warriors, Glens Falls Indians, Schoharie Indians and Corinth Tomahawks.
The issue was renewed last year when the Cambridge Central School District school board voted to eliminate its “Indians” nickname after concerns were raised. But a slate of new board members voted weeks later to retain the design.
A group of parents filed a complaint and Education Commissioner Betty Rosa ordered the district to uphold the original vote or risk losing state funding. The district sued in state Supreme Court and lost.
Few details on the policy were included in the Nov. 17 letter, but fierce opposition followed, including at a Mohonasen school board meeting days later. School board President Wade Abbott criticized the state’s handling of the issue and around two dozen residents showed up in Mohonasen Warrior gear urging the board to preserve the district’s name and Warrior identity.
The new regulations make it clear district’s name can remain, but several of its logos, including one that depicts three Native Americans and another featuring an “M” with a spear going through it, will have to go.
Unclear is whether the district will have to drop its “Warrior” nickname, a popular name used by athletic teams throughout the state that can often be linked to Native American culture.
The Board of Regents will be forming a council made up of representatives from Indigenous nations throughout the state that will weigh in on the nickname. The council is expected to meet for the first time next month.
In the meantime, the board is encouraging school districts to examine the history of their nicknames and logos, and work to eliminate any that can be traced back to Native Americans.
Rosa said the regulations were created following months of work and with the goal of giving Indigenous peoples, who are often overlooked and have been oppressed and marginalized throughout history, a greater voice.
“This issue is one where we have to look at it from the recipient; the individuals and give voice to this very, very issue of those nations that are impacted by this issue,” she said.
Under the regulations, boards of education would be required to commit to eliminating the use of Indigenous names, logos and mascots by passing a resolution by the end of the current academic year.
Included in the resolution must be plans to eliminate all use of the prohibited mantras by the end of the 2024-25 academic year — giving district’s 2 1/2 years to make the change, though extensions are possible for districts that show they are working to make the change.
Districts can continue to use an Indigenous name, mascot or logo by obtaining a written agreement from a federally recognized tribal nation or tribal nation recognized by the state, according to the regulations.
Shine, in an interview Tuesday, said the district is still waiting for additional clarification around its nickname before acting, but expects conversations to begin in earnest as early as next month, adding there’s no doubt the district will be able to meet the deadlines laid out in the regulations.
But he did acknowledge that keeping the Warrior name might prove challenging given the district’s name and its logo depicting three Native Americans.
“If I say the term ‘Mohonasen Warriors,’ I’m inherently linking ‘Warriors’ to Native American because our name is made up of the three tribes,” Shine said. “Can we argue or make a case that since we don’t have the symbols that it’s non-associated. I think that’s going to be harder for us.”
Abbott, meanwhile, doubled down on the state’s rollout of the policy, but vowed the school board would include the community in its decision-making process.
“We want to do the right thing,” he said.
Contact reporter Chad Arnold at: [email protected] or by calling 518-395-3120.
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