Cory and Sarah McMillan of Cambridge, NY, were startled when their 6-year-old daughter came home from first grade one day and said that she and her friends were playing “like animals” in a game they were playing. They call it “Savages”.
“Like that,” she said, pointing to the Indian head mascot on the school bulletin.
McMillan, 42, who grew up in a rural town of 2,000 people a few hours north of New York City, recalls: “We said, ‘This isn’t good.
The couple joined a local campaign to retire the Cambridge “Indians”, which for more than half a century has become a familiar symbol of school and hometown pride.
The campaign became more assertive as Black Lives Matter protests raised issues of inequality and many schools across the state and country removed their Native American-themed nicknames and logos. land. In professional sports, the Washington Soccer Team dropped its old name in 2020, and the Cleveland Indians recently became the Guard.
But what McMillans and a few others hoped would be a teachable moment in the mostly white town that was met with unrelenting backlash: Friendships were severed and gestures were vulgar. obscene was exchanged. Lawn signs emblazoned with the emblem and slogan, “Pride Restore,” became popular. The same message appeared on a billboard near the town’s K-12 school.
An opponent of this nickname found a pile of dung left on her lawn.
Many advocates of keeping the mascot have dismissed concerns that political correctness has disappeared, a movement led by a small group of libertarians, many of whom probably did not. lived in town long enough to realize that many of the neighboring counties have similar themed names, including the Mechanicville Red Raiders, Averill Park Warriors, and Lake George Warriors.
Duane Honyoust, a Cambridge resident and member of the Onondaga Nation, said he supports the district’s use of nicknames and symbols as a tribute to Indigenous peoples and as a reminder to students about the importance of local indigenous history.
Of the anti-mascot movement, he said, “Once you get references to Native Americans out of schools, you’re starting to wipe us out.”
Every time McMillans and others come close to canceling the name, the opposition – a solid, strong majority – complicate their efforts.
In June, after months of controversial school board elections and contentious monthly meetings, the school board voted to withdraw the name. But a month later, it voted to reverse the decision.
In response, McMillans and six other parents asked state education officials, who oversee individual school districts and boards, to intervene. In November, the state’s education commissioner, Betty A. Rosa, ruled in their favor and ordered the school district to remove the name and logo by July 2022 or face potential penalties. Possible consequences include withholding of state education funding and removal of school board staff.
Ms. Rosa said in her ruling that retaining the mascot prevents “a safe and supportive environment” for students. She also excluded the district’s use of stereotypes about indigenous people, from the elementary school newspaper “Lil ‘Indians” and the illustration of the Native American boy in “Little Hiawatha,” to the fact that a teacher was wearing it. Native American costumes to protest Cambridge sports teams.
In a statement, school officials said the school board was “disappointed” with Ms Rosa’s decision and that the board would “carefully and carefully review the decision to determine how best to proceed.” ”
Administrators are considering the prospect of keeping the name and logo intact, encouraged by many residents who support preserving the moniker.
Some parents have warned the board against wasting even more education funding in an apparently tough legal battle to retain the moniker. The district spent about $80,000 to resolve the matter, which included mediation between the two factions (they didn’t go well) and legal fees to contest the parent’s appeal.
All efforts could be contested: The New York State Legislature is expected to vote on a bill this year banning Native American-themed names, symbols and mascots in public schools established in the fall of 2024.
That hasn’t stopped the frenzy of those wanting to keep the name.
To explore the challenge to state order, some locals spoke with the Native American Defenders Association, a group that defends the name of the Washington Redskins and organizes sports logo fights. across the country.
Once little-known school board meetings were packed with vocal attendees, demanding more space and, at times, a local police officer assigned to ensure order.
One recent weekend night this month, in a school canteen, board members sat on deck chairs decorated with Indian mascots. Many of the approximately 75 attendees wore orange T-shirts and other clothing emblazoned with Indian symbols.
Most were warmly cheered when speaking out in support of keeping the mascot.
An official announced that it would cost more than $90,000 in supplies to change the nicknames and symbols on the gymnasium floor, hallway signs, the sides of school buses and elsewhere.
One speaker took to the podium and called the protest’s name “a wake-up racism.” Another stepped up and said she was sending her children to a school 20 minutes away because “I don’t want them to have this experience in their upbringing.”
Mr Honyoust, wearing a gray Indian coat, stands and distinguishes between what he considers a respectful use of Cambridge’s nickname and disrespectful usage such as the cheering “tomahawk chop” common at the baseball games in Cleveland.
Mr Honyoust said his father, David Honyoust, spearheaded a movement to preserve Cambridge mascots 20 years ago when a state order urged schools to retire them. Duane’s son Dillon was elected to Cambridge school council last year on a promise to help keep the mascot.
“I am an Indian and I know that Cambridge has a lot of respect for this image,” he said, adding that segregation in the town is “hurting our kids, it hurts our relationship.” our friend”.
But many tribes across the country oppose the use of Indigenous nicknames, including several tribes from the area that have issued statements condemning the Cambridge mascot. The National Congress of American Indians maintains a database of mascots that includes 1,925 schools in 984 counties nationwide that have Native American nicknames.
In New York, about 60 school districts, including more than 110, have Native American-themed nicknames such as Warriors, Raiders, Braves and Tomahawks, according to a tally obtained by residents. anti mascot in Cambridge obtained.
The mascot issue surfaced in late 2020 when John Kane, a Native American activist who graduated from Cambridge Central School in 1978, asked the board to consider changing it.
Mr. Kane views the use of mascots as “white people who like to play Indians.”
“It treats the natives like we are relic of the past and the students grew up thinking it was Indian,” he said in a phone interview.
In June, the five-member council voted 3-2 to pass a resolution to remove the nickname and logo. Then backlash, a vote to reverse the decision, a successful appeal against state officials, and now an outright culture war.
“Most of it is outsiders, people who are not native here, who want to get away from it,” said Belinda Sawyer, 49, a restaurant manager in town.
A cheerleader when she was in high school in Cambridge, Miss Sawyer took to the restaurant floor one recent evening and began reading “The Indians of Warpath,” a cheering jolt to the beat of drums. the sidelines. (Her great-grandmother was a black-footed black woman, she said.)
Greg Woodcock, a Cambridge resident who advocates keeping the name and mascot, estimated in a phone interview that about 85 percent of the district’s residents support it.
They will raise legal fees themselves, if necessary, he said.
Many critics have dismissed the anti-mascot campaign as spearheading recent transplants to Cambridge, said Alex Dery Snider, a Cambridge resident who filed the appeal.
“The message is that outsiders are not welcome here,” she said. “I know people who are planning to move here have changed their mind because of this issue. It just feels really unwelcome to new people. The message is that if you’re not from here, you don’t belong here. “
For Mr. McMillan, it was only after transferring to university and making various friends that he began to see some things in a different light. He began to see the name as a tactless caricature that perpetuated Native American stereotypes. As a teenager, he did the tomahawk chop to cheer for his high school soccer team.
Since joining the name-clearing war, he’s had a dramatic drop in his local home painting business and a warm reception from some longtime friends, he said.
While Cambridge “Indians” may one day be a thing of the past, he said, healing divisions in the town will take longer.
“I think it will take a new generation,” he said, “for some people to overlook this.”
https://www.nytimes.com/2022/01/29/nyregion/native-american-mascot-cambridge.html Facing Prohibition, School District struggles to keep ‘Indian’ moniker