What’s in a name?

The Venice High School logo, on the football field at Powell-Davis Stadium. An American Indian group has objected to the school’s team name “Indians” and its mascot as having racist overtones.

Sal Serbin, the Sarasota-based director of the American Indian Movement-Florida, wants Venice High School to drop its long-standing nickname — the Indians — and mascot.

How should Venice High — and its students and graduates — the Sarasota County School and the greater community respond?

Respectfully and thoughtfully.

Yes, there is irony in the fact that Serbin, whose organization includes the words “American Indian” asserts the school’s use of “Indian” has racist overtones.

And, yes, supporters and graduates of Venice High — including some well-respected community leaders of partial Indian descent — are proud of, not offended by, the name and the mascot.

But Serbin is not the first person to ask that a school abandon the Indian moniker. Nearly all universities in the United States with Indian mascots have dropped them, and many high schools have done the same.

Context matters

Unlike recently appointed School Board member Bridget Ziegler, we don’t see Serbin’s request as an example of political correctness run amok.

And the mere fact that the name “Indians” and the school’s mascot have been used in Venice for some 40 years doesn’t mean that tradition should dictate the actions of today and the future. After all, times and mores often change for good reason.

But, it seems to us, that context matters — and, in the case of Venice High, the intent of using and maintaining the Indians name and affiliated symbols has not been to insult, mock and disgrace Native Americans.

If Venice residents were clinging to, say, the name “Redskins” — as the owner of the NFL’s Washington franchise does — their intent would be much more questionable.

Also, while the logos used by Venice High might not accurately portray the American Indians who once inhabited this part of Florida, they are not cartoonish — like, for example, the grinning Chief Wahoo logo used by the Cleveland Indians’ Major League Baseball team.

Certainly there is a difference of opinion on whether people and organizations who are not considered Native Americans should use Indians as mascots and such.

Yet the term “American Indians” remains widely used in society — at the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs, and by the Seminole Tribe of Florida, which labels itself a “federally recognized Indian Tribe.”

The Seminole Tribe has actually provided a model for working with a school — Florida State University — to take steps aimed at respecting American Indian culture and accurately reflecting history.

Room for compromise?

Although Serbin appears unwilling to accept anything less than abandonment of the Indians in Venice, perhaps there is room for the high school and the school district — working with scholars and historians — to gradually modify the logo and promote community engagement that emphasizes historical context.

The more Venice High’s students and the community know about the experience of American Indians, across the land and locally, the more they will understand the need to ensure the school’s nickname and mascots — and the people they are intended to honor — are treated with respect.