What’s in a name —The ‘Indians’ here and all over

At a Board of Education meeting, a speaker asked the members to consider changing the name of its school’s teams’ name, the Indians. It was insensitive to name an athletic team after an entire people, the speaker said, especially a group that had suffered, and continues to suffer, from discrimination.

Community members then debated both sides of the issue, with many people agreeing that the name was an embarrassment for the school district, while others saying it was a point of pride in Native American heritage, and an honored tradition for the town. Indian tribal leaders weighed in to educate residents that it was, in fact, insensitive at best to keep the name “Indians,” even if many were unaware that’s the point of view of many Native Americans.

The School Board voted unanimously to change the name. That’s when the debate truly was joined, when social media platforms lit up with comments, some reasoned, many sarcastic and derogatory, but almost all impassioned.

Sound familiar? It should, because what’s happening in the Shelter Island School District over changing the name of Indian for its teams is almost exactly the same for the upstate Peru, N.Y. Central School District, whose teams’ name had also been  Indians.”

The Island School Board voted unanimously to retire the Indians name at its Aug. 31 meeting.

About a month earlier, at a Peru Board of Education meeting, after a vote to retire the Indians name, members began assembling “a stakeholder task force to develop a new Peru sports nickname that will carry us forward into the future,” according to a statement from the board to parents. The Peru task force is set to be made up of residents alumni/alumna, students, faculty, staff and school administrators.

The Shelter Island School District is still weighing a strategy to come up with a new name.

In a conversation last week with the Reporter, John T. Ryan, editor of the Peru Gazette, noted some differences between the upstate area and Shelter Island. One notable difference is the size of the districts, with Peru having about 1,900 students and the Island registering some 225 this month.

Mr. Ryan also said Peru and the surrounding towns have had its share of economic struggles, with big pharmaceutical companies pulling up stakes and is generally a “low income area,” with prisons being one of the largest employers.

In his reporting, Mr. Ryan went to Ben White, the communications director at the St. Regis Mohawk Reservation, who told him  that the issue is nothing new, but a frequent subject at school districts across the state.

“We like schools and local governments to look at the image they are projecting and how it reflects on them,” Mr. White told the local paper. “If there is any utilization of any indigenous caricatures, we ask that it be in a positive, honorable matter, that it be a true reflection of the indigenous people.”

Both sides of the issue have to be listened to, the Native American leader told Mr. Ryan, who reported that, “Mr. White is aware that many people take great pride in Indian symbols. He stated, ‘I think the vast majority of people who attach themselves to native mascots have good intentions and have goodwill toward the indigenous people they are trying to honor.’ Still, he asked, ‘What other race or ethnicity is used to represent sports franchises or school districts?’”

During the Island debate, the movement to retire the name has drawn support from the Shinnecock Nation, with Bryan Polite, the Council of Tribal Trustees’ chairman telling The Independent, “There are better ways to honor the traditions of the Shinnecock people or other Native Americans.” Mr. Polite added that the school “should honor the Native Americans by having a comprehensive curriculum centered around the local Native Tribes.”

Peru also shares discussions over the graphic image of the teams’ names, with the Peru Indian once having a full-feathered headdress for its logo, the same as the Island’s image. Both have nothing to do with the Native Americans who lived in the areas. Island native Americans are designated as eastern woodlands tribes, but its image looks more like a Great Plains Indian.

In Peru, “They changed the image to just two or three feathers that hang down,” Mr. Ryan said, which is more representative of the upstate peoples’ heritage.

Over the years, Native American names for sports teams have been changed, from Stanford University replacing “Indians” with “The Cardinal,” to St. John’s University changing from “Redmen” to “The Red Storm,” and the Washington NFL franchise recently ditching “Redskins.”

Dozens of high school teams across the country have also changed their names.

The issue of name change in New York state has been around for awhile. Almost 20 years ago, New York State  Education Commissioner Richard Paul Mills sent a notice to all school districts, stating: “I ask boards to end the use of Native American mascots as soon as practical.”

And the issue of team names in New York was recently brought to the floor of the New York Senate. Senator Pete Harckham (D-South Salem) introduced legislation on July 14 that would require school districts “that are using logos, mascots and team names that are viewed as being racially polarizing to engage in community conversations and discussions in order to reach a shared consensus on the subject and a path forward.”

As for Peru’s process in coming up with a new name, Mr. Ryan said one thing can’t be denied. “It’s going to be interesting,” the editor said.