Dr. Wachter's Presentation to the Board of Education
August 16, 2001
Commissioner’s Memo Regarding Public Use of Native American Names,
Symbols and Mascots
Last April, the Commissioner sent a memo to all New York schools asking us “to end the use of Native American mascots as soon as practical.” The Commissioner rightly understands, as he says, that “there are deeply felt, albeit conflicting, ideas about” the use of Native American mascots. As a result, his memo did not technically order school districts to change. It did, however, make a strong case as to why schools should change, and asked districts to engage in focused, honest consideration of the issue.
Here in West Irondequoit, we have done that in a number of ways. We have consulted with school attorneys, with other districts, with faculty, staff, with Mr. Peter Jemison of Ganondagon, and with Mr. Don White, a member of the Seneca Nation and the curriculum coordinator for the Seneca Nation.
As a result of these inquires, and of intensive consideration, I come before you tonight with the recommendation that while the “Indian” logo has been a part—an important part—of West Irondequoit’s past, it should not be a part of West Irondequoit’s future.
I know a change such as this cannot occur without pain for some. For many years, students, parents, graduates, staff members and community members have identified with our teams, with the district and with the name, “The Irondequoit Indians.” The name and logo have been a part of a continuing connection with our school and with one another. It is likely—and understandable—that no matter how strongly a person accepts the reasons for changing the district’s name, emotionally one might feel that something important has been taken away.
In West Irondequoit, the use of the “Indian” name and logo has never been intended—and never intentionally used—to demean or diminish or marginalize Native Americans or anyone else. It emerged, I am sure, as a natural outgrowth of our region’s geography and history, just as many place names remain with the land as cultures pass over it. Even elaborations of the logo, in the forms of stereotypical images such as tomahawks or feathers, are not intended to hurt anyone.
But one of the questions the Commissioner has asked us to consider is whether actions that have no intention to harm or offend may in fact unintentionally inflict harm or offense. That is a question we pursued, and I’ll say more about it in a moment.
First though, the legal dimension. School attorneys advise us that while no New York case law or Commissioner’s decisions have determined the legality or illegality of using “Indian” mascots or related images, legal challenges to such use do have a basis in a number of discrimination statutes. Where districts do not move away from such names and mascots voluntarily, it is likely that a challenge will be mounted somewhere and—especially given the Commissioner’s unequivocal stand—that such a challenge will succeed. The legal handwriting is on the wall, and it is very clear.
I would ask the Board to take these legal considerations carefully into consideration as fundamental to any decision to change our name. However, I will now address the “respect and responsibility” underpinnings that are the basis for the Commissioner’s direction.
Over the past 50 years or so, the social consciousness and the social conscience of our country have steadily, though unevenly, risen. What was once regarded simply as the way things were, such as personal and institutional racism, or the restrictive, subordinate roles of women, are now broadly regarded as both socially and morally wrong. I like to think of this not simply as a change, but as a growth, a maturing of how our society in general views people and groups and of how it behaves toward people and groups. That process continues.
Our conversations with Native Americans made it abundantly clear that “Indian” names and logos such as ours in fact do hurt Native Americans as individuals and demean Native Americans as a culture. Those outcomes are real, even though they are entirely unintended. We now know of individual Native Americans—including graduates of West Irondequoit—who felt alienated from parts of their school experience because of the way their culture was portrayed through the West Irondequoit logo. While they did not make it an issue at the time, this knowledge makes it incumbent upon us to make it an issue now.
Our conversation with Mr. Don White, educational coordinator for the Seneca Nation was particularly enlightening. Mr. White pointed out a number of ways in which some West Irondequoit elaborations of the Indian logo and name were offensive: They were historically inaccurate; they were stereotypical and cartoonish and they used sacred Native American symbols in denigrating ways. With absolutely NO intention to do so, they trivialized some things that are sacred to some Native American people. For example, we spoke to the West Irondequoit alumnus who had designed the Indian centerpiece for our high school gymnasium floor in 1988. He told us how deeply he regretted having created it, not having understood at the time how inappropriate and inaccurate it was to depict and use a sacred Native American emblem in this manner. Upon learning this and out of respect for this graduate’s deep feelings, I approved Mr. Fries’ request to remove that emblem immediately. I also approved, based on what we learned, the removal of another misrepresentation painted on a cafeteria wall. No matter what the Board of Education’s ultimate decision on this issue, these two paintings were historically inaccurate, potentially insensitive, and were not reflective of the lessons we hope our children learn in their schooling in West Irondequoit.
When we explored with Mr. White the question of whether West Irondequoit could use an ”Indian” logo in ways that honored rather than demeaned Native Americans, he sincerely tried to find ways to help us do that. For example, could the district use the logo as a starting point for expanding cultural awareness, promoting understanding, and dispelling stereotypes in comprehensive ways? Could it honor rather than demean the culture from which it was taken?
The conclusion we all reached is an absolute “no.” Certainly all of these goals should be part of our curricula and part of what the underlying culture of our schools promotes. Indeed, textbooks and curriculum have been revised over the past 20 or so years to provide a more accurate and honest portrayal of Native American cultures. But a school logo cannot bear this responsibility. Attempts to make it do so become flimsy rationalization. Like a flag, the purpose of a logo and name is to rally support, to raise spirit, inspire allegiance, and to define a wholesome, respectable, energized, game-winning “us.” Its purpose is to unify students, graduates, faculty, parents and community around a common emblem. The “Indian” logo has served those purposes for many in West Irondequoit. But like some flags in our nation’s South, it has done so (although unknowingly) at the expense of others. We sincerely appreciated the manner in which Mr. White answered our questions and how sensitive he was in helping us understand this issue.
In our conversation with Mr. Peter Jemison, of Ganondagon, he made a very strong point when he told us that the misuse of names and symbols from Native American culture has led to a situation where many people think they know about Native people. In fact, our understandings may be based on stereotypical images found in films, television, theatre, and other forms of entertainment which are very often misleading. What we regard as our knowledge of Native Americans may be incomplete, very inaccurate and often demeaning. We also appreciated not only the time Mr. Jemison spent with us; we appreciated his sincere willingness to answer our questions.
One could ask, “If the Cleveland Indians, and the Washington Redskins, and the Atlanta Braves can keep their logos, why can’t we keep ours?” Well, I guess we shouldn’t wait for the National League and the NFL to show us where we should go. Perhaps we should show them, given our mission of teaching young people. Our district’s mission statement speaks about promoting “pride in work, a sense of self-worth, physical well-being, integrity, decency, respect and care for others, a valuing of differences and skill in interpersonal relations”. If we truly want to create and maintain a culture of decency and respect in our schools, we have to model it for our children consistently.
Our district has recently adopted a Code of Conduct that is based on this same foundation of decency, civility, sensitivity and respect toward the feelings, values, humanity and dignity of others. We believe in these principles deeply and sincerely, and we hope they will become deeply seated in our students’ hearts and minds as well. They are part of the bedrock of our district.
Given what we now know, retaining the “Indian” logo is fundamentally inconsistent with these principles and with our hopes for our students. Our bedrock no longer supports this piece of our landscape. And I want to make it very clear that my recommendation is not about political correctness. Just like other issues surrounding ethnicity in the history of our country, once we grow to understand when we are being insensitive, our country has always made the appropriate changes. While this issue involving Native Americans is central to our traditions and identity in West Irondequoit at this moment, in the bigger picture, it is really one of many ways we need to help our children and our neighbors increase their sensitivity to, knowledge and awareness of, a world of diversity. That has always been our “high road”; the same road I am recommending this evening. This is not only a Native American issue, it’s about basic human dignity and respect.
In recommending this change for West Irondequoit’s future, I have not intended to demean any part of West Irondequoit’s past. I believe in fact that we should respect and honor our past, even as we depart from it. We are not simply changing. We are growing, and we cannot un-grow. And for those students, graduates, faculty, parents, and community members who identify strongly with the “Irondequoit Indians” logo they lived with and loved, and who may feel a loss, I hope that they will come to identify even more strongly than they already do with the principles for which the West Irondequoit School District stands, principles which emphasize respect for the dignity and humanity of all individuals and groups. Those principles provide the basis for my recommendation, which, as the educational leader of the West Irondequoit Schools, I share with you this evening. We need to respond to this issue in a way that demonstrate we are a school district with the wisdom, courage, leadership and vision to take a meaningful step toward a better educational system and a better society.
I appreciate the thoughtful consideration that the Board and the public are giving to this issue.