While Native American culture and history runs deep in New York, there are calls for schools across the state to rethink their nicknames and mascots
When entering the gymnasium at Watkins Glen High School's field house, fans are greeted by a mural that reads "Welcome to the Seneca Nation."
Watkins Glen takes great pride in being the Senecas.
Students have been taught about the tribe's history, a statue of a Seneca Indian has long been a presence at the school and students paint their faces with nods to their mascot's Native American lineage.
The gym has been a fun gathering place over the years as fans cheer on the school's highly successful boys and girls basketball teams.
“I think it’s something we all take great pride in and we just want to make the community proud," said 2020 Watkins Glen graduate Isaac McIlroy, an all-state basketball player who is headed to Keuka College. "It’s part of our history around here. I think it’s something where we all love to rep the name of the Senecas from Watkins Glen.”
Of course, the gymnasium at Watkins Glen High School is not the real Seneca Nation. In fact, 2018 census numbers showed only 31 people out of nearly 18,000 throughout Schuyler County were of American Indian or Alaska Native descent.
As socially conscious causes have come to the forefront, Watkins Glen is now reconsidering whether it should remain "Seneca Nation," joining several other schools across New York state in examining the use of Native American mascots or imagery.
More than 50 high schools throughout the New York State Public High School Athletic Association still have nicknames with direct ties to Native Americans or their cultures. That number exceeds 80 if you add in schools with Warriors mascots, some of which have Native American imagery on logos or uniforms. Thirty-one public schools have the Indians nickname.
“If you would have asked me two months ago, I wouldn’t have thought it was as big a deal until I’m actually hearing some of these things from Native populations,” said Watkins Glen athletic director Rodney Weeden.
“A teacher did a great presentation that I sat in on and it makes you think whether we could be perpetuating something. So it made me change my mind. I shouldn’t be a white guy making a decision on this. I want to hear from Native American culture on some of this stuff and I think the (Board of Education) does too.”
The rise of the Black Lives Matter movement has heightened the focus on racism. But if there was a tipping point to the use of Native American mascots, it was the decision by Washington’s NFL franchise to drop the Redskins nickname.
Districts consider a nickname change
School administrators, by and large, are at least listening to people's concerns.
On Aug. 12, the Nyack School Board in Rockland County retired the Indians’ nickname, five weeks after an alumnus introduced a petition to make the change.
In July, the school board of Peru Central School, in Clinton County, voted to retire its use of the Indians nickname. A task force was created to come up with a new one.
The Katonah-Lewisboro school board retired the Indians mascot for John Jay High School in Cross River, in Westchester County, and is replacing it with Wolves.
In Chautauqua County, the Jamestown Justice Coalition started an online petition to change Jamestown High School’s Red Raiders name, and as of mid-July it had more than 800 signatures in support.
Avon High School in Livingston County is examining its Braves mascot. Superintendent Ryan Pacatte said the term "Brave" represents positivity, courage and honor, but added the school needs to be responsive to the current climate.
Elsewhere, there are ongoing campaigns and petitions to change nicknames at Roy C. Ketcham High School (Indians) in Wappingers Falls, Dutchess County, Mahopac (Indians), Putnam County, and East Islip (Redmen and Lady Redmen) and Brentwood (Indians) on Long Island.
At least two high schools in the state still have Redskins as their mascot: Canisteo-Greenwood in Steuben County and Oriskany in Oneida County. Both have addressed their mascots since the NFL's Washington team dropped its nickname.
Canisteo-Greenwood School District Superintendent Tom Cook said he likely will put together a committee that starts discussion of a change, which “does not commit to changing the name, but commits to having a conversation.”
A special Oriskany High board meeting was held July 21, but scheduled community forums were postponed until later this fall due to a lack of interest.
Down the road from Watkins Glen, Odessa-Montour High School displays a sign over the entrance that identifies it as "Home of the Indians.”
“We have talked about it as a board,” said Superintendent Chris Wood, a graduate and former athlete at O-M. “It’s on our radar of things to do this year, but we’ve got to get kids back first in order to go further in the conversation."
‘We’re not mascots’
G. Peter Jemison, of the Heron Clan of Seneca Nation, is manager at Ganondagan State Historic Site in Victor. He said the NFL Washington team's decision was based on what was prudent financially and not on moral correctness.
"I'm pleased the decision was made, but it's important to acknowledge what brought it to that point," he said, noting the pressure coming from FedEx, which committed to pay more than $200 million for the naming rights to the team's stadium.
In 2019, the Stockbridge-Munsee Native American community passed a resolution denouncing the use of Native American names and mascots. The tribe is based in Wisconsin and is descendants of the Wappinger tribe that has roots in New York state.
“From a moral standpoint, it’s not right,” said Heather Bruegl, historian and director of cultural affairs for the Stockbridge-Munsee. “Native Americans are people. They were the first people that inhabited this continent. You can't tell the complete story of the United States without the story of genocide.
“For the Stockbridge-Munsee, our homeland was the Hudson Valley, throughout Dutchess County, Columbia County, Rensselaer County. We were forced to move westward. We had land, our culture, our children taken from us. … We're a people that are still here and we have a strong, resilient history. We're not mascots.”
New York state’s Iroquois Confederacy dates back hundreds of years and includes six nations of Native American people: Cayuga, Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Seneca and Tuscarora. Counties, towns and lakes across New York carry names connecting them with those nations. Several districts have direct or indirect ties to Native Americans, which partly explains why so many schools have adopted them as mascots.
Push for change and opposing views
State Sen. Pete Harckham, D-South Salem, Westchester County, in July introduced legislation that would require school districts using “racially polarizing” nicknames, mascots and logos to engage in community conversations on the topic.
Initially the prospect of taking away state funding from schools using these mascots was raised, but that was not part of Harckham's final bill.
“We can no longer simply dismiss the idea that school or team nicknames and mascots are innocuous and do not hurt or offend other people,” Harckham said in a statement.
However, getting everyone in the community behind the changes remains a challenge, and the opposition comes from the community, alumni, students and officials.
In Nyack, Rockland County, where the district will be looking for a new nickname, Dan Berkowitz, a 1988 graduate and varsity football coach, said the Indians name is about "honoring them and putting them on a pedestal."
"People now feel like they are being attacked for being racist when it was never thought upon that way. It was thought of as a celebration or an honoring.
"I understand the other side of it. The imagery of the Indians with tomahawks and blood on their faces and savagery. The Redskins with the red face. We stopped using all imagery in 2003. We took away feathers and anything related to Indians at all."
Ben Nelson, overseer of Section IV athletics since the spring of 1998, is the longest-tenured executive director in the NYSPHSAA.
He said in addition to Odessa-Montour and Watkins Glen, discussions regarding nickname/mascot have been had in the Candor (Tioga County) and Groton (Tompkins County) districts. Those two schools are members of the Interscholastic Athletic Conference along with Watkins Glen and O-M.
“I don’t think it’s been discussed as a league issue, certainly hasn’t been as a section issue,” Nelson said. “Individual schools have to deal with it however they decide they should deal with it.”
Nelson’s take: “You need to be sensitive to others’ feelings. But to me, Indians and Warriors, that’s a compliment, not a negative. If you’re using those it’s like imitating someone, that’s the greatest form of compliment.”
Chris Evans is a native of Owego in Tioga County, father of Owego Free Academy graduates, a grad himself, teacher and two-sport coach in the district. Well-connected as he is to Owego athletics and to the district as a whole, he’s not heard the school's nickname/mascot discussion come up other than in casual conversation.
“Maybe it is time,” he said. “I’m a lifelong Owego Free Academy Indian, but if there are enough Native Americans out there who think that it’s time to go because somehow it’s disparaging to the Native Americans, well then maybe that’s something we have to sit down and talk about.
“Me, I’ll always be an Indian, but I’d certainly welcome the idea of sitting down and having a discussion. If somebody wanted to sit and talk with me about the whole nickname and mascot thing and they presented some sort of argument that I didn’t consider before, certainly I would be open to that.”
Bruegl said use of the word “Indians” can be offensive depending on who is using it and in what context. Other school nicknames such as Braves, Chiefs and Warriors also could be tied to Native Americans depending on mascots and graphics.
“A lot of these schools in New York are sitting on ancestral Mohican land," she said. "These counties are some of the places where my ancestors lived and died or were removed from. You honor them by educating yourself and respecting our concerns."
Native American pride and education
Maybe no other school district in the state has a stronger awareness of the legacy of a Native American nation in its region than Salamanca. It is the only city entirely on indigenous territory, according to the school district’s superintendent, Bob Breidenstein.
About 1,100 of the 1,400 students in the district reside on the Allegany territory of the Seneca Nation. Thirty-eight percent of students in the district are described as Native American. Add families with multiple family heritages, and that percentage rises to 42 percent.
“All recorded history I’m aware of, we have always been identified as the Salamanca Warriors,” Breidenstein said. “We have a logo and a brand that is deeply connected with our ancestry in the community.
“Unlike other communities and franchises that have a stereotypical mascot, it is one that has meaning and purpose well beyond sports, a franchise or contest.”
There is symbolism in the smallest details of the Salamanca district logo, including the direction the Warrior faces, he said.
“You have to dig a lot deeper,” Breidenstein said about the meaning of Salamanca’s logo.
Canandaigua Academy has called its sports teams the Braves since at least the 1940s. Members of the school district’s board of education approached local Native American representatives around 2002 in an effort to change any incorrect or stereotypical imagery used by its teams.
Their message to Jemison? "We don't know your stories. We aren't informed, and we should be," Jemison recalled.
Jemison helped implement Seneca education in the curriculum that has fourth-graders spending a day at Ganondagan State Historic Site. In addition, all new hires in the district are required to visit the site for education.
Today, the Canandaigua City School District uses a Wampum belt as the official logo with a Seneca spear enclosed within it along with the block CA letters.
“I applaud the efforts to remove the stereotypes,” Jemison said. “That’s a step in the right direction. I call it an American mythology which does not want to deal with the truth. It’s a different truth, it’s a painful memory …
“I’ve talked with adults who, when they come to understand it, when they learn the history, they’re shocked. How did they get to be that age and not know what happened? It’s a big issue and it’s about more than the name of a high school team. There’s a lot more to this.”
No human likenesses are used by the Canandaigua district for sports teams. The district said it is strict to enforce the guidelines and prompt to correct any violations by fans, booster clubs and others.
— Contributing writers include Bob Chavez of the Canandaigua Daily Messenger, Sean Curran of the Hornell Tribune, Stephen Haynes of the Poughkeepsie Journal, Sal Interdonato of the Middletown Times Herald-Record, and James McClendon of the Utica Observer-Dispatch.