New York Schools Fight Over Team Names After Native American Mascot Ban

From a Wall Street Journal story by Joseph DeAvila headlined “New York Schools Fight Over Team Names After Native American Mascot Ban”:

When the Canandaigua Academy football team in upstate New York takes the field this fall, they won’t be the Braves for the first time in nearly 75 years.

The Canandaigua City School District is one of dozens in New York that are retiring Native American-inspired team names, mascots and logos after the state education department banned their use.

In Rochester-area Canandaigua, schools have had the Braves name since 1949. Many people, especially those whose parents and grandparents were alumni, were upset about removing the name, said Jamie Farr, superintendent of the school district.

“There is a lot of history here,” he said. “You have to engage in those conversations on whose identity is it really, and those are hard conversations and emotional conversations.”

Similar conversations are playing out across the state, as school districts grapple with the national reckoning against such names. Under New York’s new ban, school boards must pass resolutions committing to eliminating indigenous-inspired names and imagery by Friday, and must remove them fully by the end of the 2024-2025 school year. Schools that don’t comply could have state funding withheld.

“The time is now to move away from these harmful images,” said Keshia Clukey, a spokeswoman for the state education department.

Several professional sports teams abandoned indigenous-inspired names, including the Washington Commanders, formerly the Redskins, and the Cleveland Guardians, formerly the Indians, after years of protests. Others, such as the Kansas City Chiefs and Atlanta Braves, have kept their names.

More than a dozen schools across at least eight different states, including Florida, Michigan and Kansas, retired their Native American-inspired mascot names in 2022, according to the National Congress of American Indians, which has long opposed the use of indigenous-inspired mascots.

“Sports mascots are symbols of disrespect that degrade, mock, and harm Native people, particularly Native youth,” the organization said.

At least nine states, including Oregon, Vermont and Nevada, have passed laws or regulations banning Native American-inspired or discriminatory mascots.

There are about 1,900 schools in the U.S. that use Native American-inspired team names, according to the advocacy group, which has defended Native American and tribal rights for decades.

A 2022 review of 26 studies concluded indigenous-inspired mascots have negative mental-health impacts on Native Americans. The American Psychological Association in 2005 called for such mascots to be discontinued, citing a growing body of social-science literature that shows the harmful effects of racial stereotyping.

The Shinnecock Indian Nation on Long Island said it supports the ban.

“Mascots of a people or culture is not an honoring,” said Josephine Smith, director of the Shinnecock Indian Nation’s cultural resources department. “Indigenous people are not things to bring good luck, are not fictional characters, are not to be used to represent your town, school, sport team, organization or business.”

Some districts are fighting the changes.

The board of Massapequa Public Schools on Long Island passed a resolution last week saying it would comply with the ban, but said it planned to challenge the ban in court to keep its Chiefs name.

“It is no secret the Chiefs logo is not just an image,” the school board said in a letter to the community after passing the resolution. “It is Massapequa’s history and has been adopted by more than just our school district.”

Donna Sirianni, whose daughter attends Massapequa High School, said her late father would be furious if he knew that his alma mater was getting rid of the Chiefs name. Sirianni said her father, who graduated in 1960, was on Massapequa’s football, track and field and wrestling teams. Being a Chief was part of his identity, she said, adding that she believes the name is meant to honor Native Americans.

“It’s all positive intent,” said Sirianni, who runs a professional training company on Long Island. “There is not an ounce of negative intent in wanting to keep Massapequa Chiefs whatsoever.”

The Wantagh Union Free School District on Long Island sought to keep its team name, the Warriors, while retiring its logo, which featured the face of a Native American man. The state education department declined the district’s request.

The board has since passed a resolution removing the name and logo, but is considering challenging the name-change requirement in court, said district superintendent John McNamara.

The Canisteo-Greenwood Central School District in Canisteo, N.Y., began conversations last year about retiring its team name, the Redskins, after superintendent Thomas Crook spoke with a member of the Seneca Nation.

Some people weren’t happy about changing the name, which had been in place since the 1950s, Crook said. But he said a community survey shows that view is in the minority.

“A large majority of my community members are either in favor of or understand this is a necessary retirement of the mascot,” Crook said.

The school board voted to retire the Redskin name earlier this year, and community members submitted more than 1,000 suggestions for new names, Crook said.

Students chose Chargers as the new team name, he said. Crook hopes to unveil a new logo in July.

Farr, the superintendent of the Canandaigua City School District, said the board passed a resolution eliminating the name earlier this month. Community members will choose a new team name in the coming school year, he said.

Farr said his community largely views the name change as an opportunity to define what it will be for generations to come.

“Let’s work together on something we can all be proud of,” Farr said.

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