High schools in region have mascots that represent Native Americans.
Amid protests and a national campaign led by the Oneida Indian Nation tribe, the National Football League’s team in Washington, D.C. has not dropped the nickname Redskins.
The change that Washington refuses to make is one Cooperstown High School underwent in the spring of 2013, when its nickname was changed from the same word to the Hawkeyes after a group of students spoke out. After the change was made, the Oneida Indian Nation donated $10,000 to the Cooperstown school district to help cover the cost of new uniforms.
“In the dictionary, that word is defined as a slur,” said Joel Barkin, vice president of communications for the Oneida Indian Nation. “It’s a word historically used against Native Americans. It refers to skin color, scalp color. … It’s a term you would never use in speaking one-on-one to a Native American. You’d never call them a redskin.”
Among Section 4, which encompasses high schools stretching from Corning to the Oneonta area, seven schools have mascots with a Native American connection: the Watkins Glen Senecas, the Southern Cayuga Chiefs, and the Indians of Candor, Groton, Odessa-Montour, Owego Free Academy and Stamford. Over the Pennsylvania border in Bradford County, Sayre Area High School has the same Redskins mascot as the NFL team.
Hundreds of high schools, colleges and pro teams across the country have nicknames derived from Native Americans. While Indians, Braves or Chiefs may not be as inflammatory as Redskins, Barkin said schools need to ask themselves whether they’re using Native Americans as mascots without regard for the human beings represented by those logos and the chants often heard at sporting events.
“There’s a lot of research that shows the demeaning impact a Native American mascot can have,” Barkin said. “If we’re trying to teach our kids to be well-rounded, thoughtful people, and that’s the role of the school, there needs to be a larger discussion about whether we’re accomplishing that.
“The vast majority of people don’t mean any harm and they don’t make any association, but it’s not necessarily those people being impacted by this. It’s important to have that discussion and make sure people in areas where there’s either a lot of contact or no contact with the Native American community aren’t only being portrayed as a mascot or just read about in November (around Thanksgiving). This is a living, breathing part of our country.”
Strong presence in Watkins Glen
Watkins Glen’s nickname is specifically meant to honor the Seneca Nation. The Senecas play their home games a few miles from Seneca Lake.
Tom Phillips, superintendent of the Watkins Glen School District, said the district’s goal is to honor the impact of the Seneca Nation, which has a population of about 8,000, according to its website.
“It’s all in how you take it and how it’s meant,” Phillips said. “One thing we’re very careful to ensure in general is that it’s about the Senecas, Seneca Lake, Seneca Nation — the founders of our heritage, if you will, here in Catharine Valley.”
Phillips said the district teaches Native American studies in elementary school and brings Native Americans in to discuss their culture and lives. Phillips said he has never heard of anyone having a problem with the school’s nickname.
An interview request with Seneca Nation leaders was declined. Susan Asquith, a spokeswoman for the Seneca Nation, wrote in an email they have traditionally “stayed out of this conversation” regarding the use of Native American mascots.
Phillips said there is a difference between Senecas and Redskins.
“I guess the issue is when you get started getting specific with Redskins and skin color and all that kind of debate,” he said. “My point being it’s about how it’s intended. If you get to the point where you’re making people feel uncomfortable, you have to really think about it. Let’s have an open discussion about why people feel this way and what do you do about it.”
Meant as a tribute
Phillips said he believes the Native American mascots in this region are used to emphasize pride.
“I do think it goes back to history, the origins of the founding of this area,” he said. “This is really, truly Native American country — from Chemung to Horseheads and all the way up. I think that’s where it all came from. As lands were settled and then civilizations came to be, people looked around and said, ‘How do you do this?’ We have Seneca Lake, and right now being Senecas honors those who founded this place.”
The other side of having two high schools a few miles apart with Native American nicknames is that Schuyler County has a small number of Native Americans. According to 2013 U.S. Census numbers, only 0.3 percent of the county’s population were of American Indian or Alaska Native descent. That’s where it becomes important that athletes and fans recognize the human element of the mascot on their team’s helmet, or on the sign in front of the school.
Jason Westervelt was part of the Odessa-Montour Indians as an athlete before graduating in 1997, and is now a successful swimming and girls lacrosse coach at Owego. He has viewed the mascot as honoring the legacy of Native Americans.
“I don’t think it was ever meant to be discriminatory,” he said. “It’s something to be like a memorial, or ‘We’re proud of Native Americans and want to honor them somehow.’ I think that’s how it originally came about. I don’t think it’s ever meant to make fun or discriminate against anybody.”
Westervelt said there was more identification with the Indians mascot when he was a student at O-M than there is now at Owego, which has the OFA logo on its uniforms.
“When I was in Odessa, it was kind of a pride thing — Odessa-Montour Indians,” he said. “We had Indians on just about everything we wore. Now, even at Odessa, I think most kids are wearing O-M or OMCS.”
Bob Lee was a longtime varsity football coach at Watkins Glen and now is head coach at Odessa-Montour. He said he has always viewed those schools’ mascots as paying respect to Native Americans, though he said he can see where the Redskins nickname would be viewed as a problem.
“We’re not trying to denigrate anybody. I was proud of being a Seneca, and I’m proud of being an Odessa-Montour Indian,” Lee said. “It honors those people.”
Resistance to change
Those nationally who support the use of the Redskins nickname have argued that it honors Native Americans. Pro Football Hall of Famer Mike Ditka, now an analyst for ESPN, said in an interview last month with RedskinHistorian.com that the cries to change the nickname were “stupid.”
“I hope that owner (Daniel Snyder) keeps fighting for it and never changes it, because the Redskins are part of American football history and should never be anything but the Washington Redskins,” he said.
Tradition also has played a big role for Sayre and New York state schools, such as Canisteo-Greenwood and Lancaster, holding onto the Redskins nickname. Lancaster and Canisteo-Greenwood each have had recent discussions about changing mascots. Dean Hosterman, superintendent for the Sayre School District, declined an interview request for this report.
C.J. Hebert, superintendent of the Cooperstown Central School District, said it received resistance during the transition from Redskins to Hawkeyes, which honors a character in novels written by Cooperstown native son James Fenimore Cooper.
“There were certain community individuals who were resistant to change, who felt it was unnecessary,” Hebert said. “I and the board were very careful in talking about it, that this was not being done as a negative reflection on any past classes or previous classes, or the connotation being former Redskins would have on any former students or alumni. Some of the commentary was that nobody meant it in a derogatory manner.
“We really phrased it that times have changed, and the connotation and words have changed over time as well, and people have become more socially aware. In this day and age, it wasn’t acceptable.”
Hebert said only minor changes to the school logo were needed and that students have embraced the new nickname.
“We have an excellent student body. They’re certainly proponents for positive change. They’re very socially aware, and I’m not surprised they would act on something they feel strongly about,” Hebert said.
There have also been other changes over the years. Afton dropped its Indians nickname in 2001 to become the Crimson Knights, and St. Bonaventure University dropped its Brown Indian mascot in 1979, later becoming the Bonnies. Binghamton North High School was known as the Indians before its merger with Binghamton Central in the early 1980s.
Barkin said while the Washington Redskins have financial incentive to keep their nickname, he is hopeful more schools follow Cooperstown’s lead. He is encouraged that the discussion is taking place more often.
“It speaks to where we are as a society on social issues, and on issues of ethnicity and multicultural respect,” he said. “We live in a diverse country, and I think people are looking at issues with more scrutiny now than they historically may have.
“People have an emotional attachment (to the nickname), but at the end of the day, you look at a school like Cooperstown and they became the Hawkeyes. People still have school pride; sports didn’t go away.”