The New York State Education Department has ordered school districts to stop using mascots, team names or imagery depicting Native Americans by the end of the school year or risk losing state aid.
The guidance issued Thursday to school districts statewide by Senior Deputy Commissioner James N. Baldwin stems from a court case involving an upstate school district that sought to keep its “Indians” team name, logo and mascot and challenged the state in court but recently lost the case.
“The court’s decision establishes that public school districts are prohibited from utilizing Native American mascots,” Baldwin said. “Arguments that community members support the use of such imagery or that it is ‘respectful’ to Native Americans are no longer tenable. Those school districts that continue to utilize Native American team names, logos, and/or imagery without current approval from a recognized tribe must immediately come into compliance.”
The state gave districts until the end of the school year to replace their current team names.
“Should a district fail to affirmatively commit to replacing its Native American team name, logo, and/or imagery by the end of the 2022-23 school year, it may be a willful violation of the Dignity Act. The penalties for such a violation include the removal of school officers and the withholding of State Aid,” Baldwin wrote.
Tela Troge, attorney for the Shinnecock Nation in Southampton and director of the tribe’s health and community services, called the state’s action “long overdue.”
“No longer will Native American children be subjected to a mockery of their heritage by the misappropriation of their culture while participating in sports and engaging in their day-to-day learning environment,” Troge said Friday. “The inclusion of the enforcement mechanism of revoking state aid bends the arc of justice in favor of New York’s tribal nations and their children.”
Sandi Brewster-walker, executive director of the Montaukett Indian Nation, said schools faced with changing team or other native names need to understand why they’re doing it.
“It’s an education moment, and it’s bigger than just changing the name,” she said. “It’s learning about who we are.”
There are several petitions on change.org asking that some Long Island school districts, including Brentwood, Manhasset, Sewanhaka, Massapequa and Syosset change their team names.
In Massapequa, home to the “Chiefs,” school officials said in a statement Friday that “the District is in receipt of SED’s memo and is in the process of reviewing it and consulting with counsel.”
In East Islip, Superintendent John Dolan said in a statement, “This has been an ongoing topic of conversation in our community. The district is aware of the recent directive given by SED and will review the material and discuss next steps in consultation with our legal counsel.”
Dolan in a telephone interview with Newsday said that over the past two years the district has been replacing the Indian headdress logos that used to hang on the school buildings and on most of its athletic fields and offices.
“We know this is a serious and very important issue and we want to be sensitive to all parties concerned,” Dolan said. “All four of our elementary schools, the middle school and the high school have the same message now, ‘Welcome to East Islip. Home of EI Pride.’ And our outdoor signage has the same message on our fields.”
Two years ago, the Shelter Island school district Board of Education voted to retire the “Indians” name for its teams, which are now known as the Islanders.
The movement to retire the Indians name in Shelter Island was brought forth by both former and current students at the time, said Kathleen Lynch, the former Board of Education president who remains a trustee. The vote to change the name was unanimous after the students campaigned for the effort.
“It was a rough time, very divisive,” Lynch said. “But the kids — as always — led the way. Our students here are really engaged in this community because it is so small and if there is something to be addressed, they are always at the front of it.”
The issue was raised in 2001 by then-Education Commissioner Richard Mills, who asked boards of education to “end the use of Native American mascots as soon as possible.”
Many school districts have heeded the directive and retired their mascots, but other school districts have not complied, according to the department.
After extensive study in 2020 and 2021, the upstate Cambridge district voted to retire its “Indians” team name, logo, and mascot in June 2021. It reversed itself in July 2021 upon the election of a new board member. Community members challenged this action in an appeal to the commissioner of education. The case went to the Supreme Court in Albany County, which ruled in favor of the state.
Several professional sports teams have come under fire in recent years for their nicknames and imagery.
In the NFL, the Washington Redskins announced in 2020 that the team would change its name and logo after FedEx threatened to remove its name and sponsorship from the stadium where the team plays. The team played as the Washington Football Team for two years before changing to the Commanders before this season.
MLB’s Cleveland franchise rebranded to the Guardians from the Indians this past season. MLB commissioner Rob Manfred has defended the name of the Atlanta Braves and the fans’ use of the “tomahawk chop,” saying that the team consulted with local Cherokee leaders who said they see it as a source of pride. Many Native American leaders have pushed back on that idea.
With Gregg Sarra and Mark Harrington