SALAMANCA — More than 50 high schools across New York state still have mascots with Native American origins, and the Seneca Nation called for the practice to end, saying it doesn’t honor the history or culture of Indigenous people.
Seneca Nation spokesman Joe Stahlman denounced the use of Native American mascots in an email.
”Seneca Nation views the use of Native American names, references and imagery for the logos and mascots of schools and their sports teams as blatantly offensive to the Seneca Nation and has no place in a multicultural society that values diversity,” Stahlman wrote in an email.
Some New York schools have recently dropped or announced they will change those mascots, including Nyack, Peru and John Jay High School in Cross River, which all used Indians as their nickname. In the Southern Tier, Watkins Glen is one of several other districts examining the use of Native American mascots.
”It is not an ‘honor,’ as many schools and teams assert, to be inaccurately portrayed by caricatures and references that have no connection to our history or our living cultures, Stahlman said. “The Seneca Nation calls on all districts and educational institutions to immediately cease this practice.”
Stahlman is director of the Seneca-Iroquois National Museum and Tribal Historic Preservation Office in Salamanca. He was responding to a series of questions related to the use of Native American mascots in high schools, particularly in the wake of the decision by Washington’s NFL franchise to drop its Redskins mascot. An initial request for comment from the Seneca Nation’s president’s office in Salamanca was directed to Stahlman.
Earlier this summer, the Watkins Glen Central School District’s Board of Education discussed its longtime use of the Senecas nickname and mascot. Rodney Weeden, athletic director at Watkins Glen, said the district categorized a list of priorities in regards to its use of Senecas as a mascot, starting with anything related to use of an Indian head in the school district.
Weeden said Tuesday the mascot is something that will be discussed again by the school district, which has been largely focused on back-to-school planning this month.
”I definitely do appreciate their candor and letting us know how they feel as the Seneca Nation,” Weeden said of Stahlman’s comments.
Weeden said he had heard of Seneca Nation previously providing written approval of the school’s use of Seneca Nation as a mascot, as long as it was done respectfully.
”I believe there have been letters sent over the years,” Stahlman wrote. “However, at this stage we could live with the Seneca name, but ask they forego the mascot. A mascot quickly goes into territory where we lose agreement between honor and caricature.”
Weeden previously brought up the possibility of continuing to use Senecas as a nickname while no longer using Seneca Nation as a mascot and dropping Native American imagery.
”The name Seneca is fine,” Stahlman wrote. “The name Seneca Indians (used by combined Watkins Glen/Odessa-Montour football and baseball teams) becomes a little more problematic. We’re not sure what appropriate symbols would be in this matter. We would like to discuss those possibilities with the appropriate administrators.”
Stahlman said the Seneca Nation is OK with the general outside use of Seneca, such as Seneca Lake or the historic Seneca Lodge in Watkins Glen.
”I think it is safe to say that Seneca Nation does not have an issue with the use of Seneca,” he wrote. “It is how it is used. This is why football and sports are problematic. Sports culture has a tendency to rebrand words and other terminology to fit into their subculture. As a result, we have sensitive concerns like the dehumanizing of First Peoples through the use of sport names, symbols, mascots and nicknames.”
• What do you view as the biggest issue with the use of Native American mascots, particularly by groups that have no Native American citizens or very few people of Native American descent?
Sports mascots and names should be word(s), phrases or things that empower players, staff and fans. It needs to be a power totem. A totem is a spirit being, sacred object, or symbol that serves as an emblem of a group of people, such as a family, clan, lineage or tribe. If Watkins Glen wishes to honor the Seneca, how about they go into the Seneca worldview and try to understand the Native reliance on the natural world and how they employed the animal world to provide them with totems? These totems continued to be used for clan names, geographic sites and so on.
• People largely talk of Native American mascots honoring those particular groups. Do you have any thoughts on that point of view?
There is no honor of turning culture into sports-related slogans, characterizations, silly mascots. Even if honor is intended at one point, there seems to be a slippery slope where this no longer becomes an honor, but an insult. Actually, I have not seen many uses of sports-related teams that honor First Peoples. In my opinion, the Chicago Blackhawks come the closest to actually honoring and I’m still on the fence with that one.
• How important is it for groups using Native American nicknames and mascots to understand the history and cultures those mascots are meant to represent?
It is very important. For the same reasons any reasonable person would not let their children hear or be privy to any form of racism that would affect their development and views of the world. Native children have to deal with a large amount of life matters that many other American ethnic groups do not have to concern themselves with and one of them is Native representation by the outside world. Have you ever considered what that does to one’s psyche knowing how the larger society views and talks about you? It does make you feel not part of society. At least in any meaningful way.
• What would your recommendation be to those school districts debating the use of Native American nicknames?
I suggest that they don’t try to debate the matter. Instead, listen to people who are negatively affected by the use of these words. They are deeply unsettling. I know the Watkins Glen community truly cares for the mental and physical well-being of their children. Well, so do we, and we feel — based on psychological, anthropological and other research — these names do negatively affect our well-being and how we conceive ourselves.
All summer we have witnessed multiple times nationally where advocates from the African American community and Black Lives Matter have made requests out of respect for the well-being for Black Americans. Many of the requests were accepted without push-back. How come Native communities continuously have to prove or maintain a level of requests in order to be heard?
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