Around the Island

Community presses board to keep 'Indians' name

ELEANOR P. LABROZZI PHOTO | The image at center court of the Shelter Island School gymnasium. It’s future seemed threatened in August but tradition appears to have carried the day in September for keeping the Indian.

The Indians live to fight another day.

The Board of Education, after hearing last month from a student who asked for consideration of a new school mascot and name for its sports teams, heard from community members Monday night. Result: no action to replace the Indian name or symbol that dominates center court of the school gym and is seen on T-shirts and hoodies around town.

Twenty five residents Monday night asked the BOE not to abandon tradition, but consider referring to its Indian as an “idol” or “symbol,” not “mascot.” What’s more, they were pleased to hear board members ensuring the Indian heritage of Shelter Island is incorporated into history classes so students understand and respect the image.

The suggestion that the school adopt a new “mascot” started with graduate Lisa Kaasik, a member of the class of 2013, who argued in both an editorial in the Inlet, the school newspaper, and at an August BOE meeting that the Indian mascot lent itself to stereotypes. It was “highly insensitive,” Ms. Kaasik said, to native Americans who occupied the area before settlers arrived.

What’s more, she noted the full-headdress of the Indian on the gymnasium floor was not true to the image of the Manhanset tribe since they didn’t wear headdresses.

Some teachers and board members seemed to embrace her thinking at the August meeting, but with a single exception — volleyball Coach Cindy Belt — other speakers Monday night implored the board to hold on to tradition and retain the Indian.

Later in the evening when Ms. Belt arrived, having missed the earlier discussion, she reiterated her opinion. Her sister-in-law, Nancy Redeye, a Seneca, had shared with her that the Indian mascot is offensive.

Ms. Belt was encouraged by the board to watch the tape of the meeting and hear the views of others.

“I’m saving my tribe from annihilation,” Billy Hallman told the board. “What we’ve done is kind of cherish our history of people who were here before,” he said. “I just don’t want to be some bird — an osprey or a seagull.”

“We aren’t trying to denigrate the Indians here,” said John Hallman.

Jay Card, who came up with the image that Superintendent Michael Hynes approved for the gymnasium floor, called it “very prideful.” And his wife, Judy Goodleaf Card, who is of Indian descent, said she didn’t believe the mascot was embarrassing or racist and it had real meaning for her husband and children, all of whom have attended Shelter Island School.

But the word “mascot” conjures up an image of someone jumping around in costume, said former School Board President Rebecca Mundy, who agreed with Ms. Card that the Shelter Island Indian should be an “icon.”

When the community heard about Ms. Kaasik’s campaign to change the Indian mascot, it “sent a tremor through this Island,” Ms. Mundy said.

The subject had appeared on the Monday’s meeting agenda for “discussion” not action, Board President Stephen Gessner said.

“It doesn’t mean we act because someone speaks,” he said.

Board member Linda Eklund said for Islanders, Indian represented a tribute, not a racist slur. But she said she, too, preferred the word “icon” to “mascot.” At the same time, she said it was wonderful to hear Ms. Kaasik speak so beautifully. Her colleague, Elizabeth Melichar agreed, saying Ms. Kaasik had expressed her views for the board’s consideration and the way in which she presented her argument was a tribute to her teachers.

“She gave an eloquent rendition of points for consideration,” Ms. Melichar said.

What does have to go is whooping sounds some students made at a recent game, she said, calling that disrespectful of the Indian image.

“I really believe that everybody deserves a voice,” Board member Marilynn Pysher said about why she encouraged Ms. Kaasik to speak out. Her presentation was “non-inflammatory,” Ms. Pysher said.

“If we get rid of the word ‘mascot,’ we’ll be fine,” Board member Alfred Brigham Sr. said.