Western NY School District Drops Native American Slur, Prompting Protests

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March 17, 2015; Washington Post

The Lancaster Central School District Board in Western New York accomplished in one day what many advocates have been unable to persuade Washington NFL team owner Dan Snyder to do in years: drop the name “Redskins.”

Last Monday, the board voted unanimously to drop the name, acknowledging that while the symbol has been part of the high school’s proud heritage, it has become a “symbol of ethnic stereotyping.” Native Americans consider the word a derogatory racial slur. Understandably, some believe the term used to refer to the scalped heads of Native Americans, reminiscent of the historic butchery of the Native American past.

“In the resolution, the board states its commitment to provide an educational environment that embraces cultural diversity, tolerance, and respect among the students, staff, and the greater school community,” said the board in a statement on the Lancaster School district’s website.

It seems the board has been leaning in the direction of dropping the name for a while. Three other area schools in the area with lacrosse teams with Native American players have refused to play opposite the Lancaster school’s team. In recent years, while the school district’s uniforms still depict the mascot, they have excluded the name, and the football scoreboard omits it as well. According to the official statement, the entire mascot will be retired in the future.

“I hope the Native American community understands that while the mascot is still in place at Lancaster High School, we have worked diligently to treat it with respect and honor, removing any stereotypical behaviors and images,” said District Superintendent Michael Vallely in a statement. “I would implore their patience and understanding as we continue to educate our students and our community.”

But the decision has not come without controversy. Last year, the school district held a hearing for the community that hundreds attended, protesting the potential change. Some shouted, “Let’s go Redskins! Let’s go,” while others appealed to allow the community to vote.

Some community members felt the decision was contrary to how the term actually functioned. “All of these years, we’ve never used it in a negative way,” said Lancaster High School senior Emily Koeppel said. “It was never meant to be hurtful.” Yet, a recent study by the California State University, San Bernardino found that 60 percent of the Native Americans polled found the word to be racist. Whether or not it was meant to be hurtful, in consequence, it appears it was, at least to students in the neighboring towns.

Other organizations have responded positively to the decision, heralding the school for taking the step toward a more respectful community.

“Not only did the school make a powerful statement to the Native American community that they no longer wanted to use a term that is a dictionary-defined slur against native people,” said the spokesman for the Oneida Indian Nation of Central New York, Joel Barkin. “But it made a statement to the kids in that school to be self-aware and have empathy and think about how the actions that you are engaging in affect other people outside of yourself.”

While Dan Snyder has been steadfast in his refusal to drop the name, others have followed the same path as Lancaster High School. Last year, the Oklahoma Public Schools Board voted to remove the word from Oklahoma City’s Capitol Hill High School.—Shafaq Hasan

  • Victoria Ayers

    Testing whether a team name like “Redskins” is offensive is easy. Replace it with an equivalent term referencing another group. In this case, do we name teams the “N—–rs” or the “B-tch–s”? Probably not. What about “Chiefs”? Would we name a team the Senators or Kings? Sure. In regard the concept that a name like Redskins is “treated with respect” how would you treat the name “N—–rs” with respect? Same thing. The missing point is, offense is not measured by the experience of the giver, but that of the recipient. To insist that a Mohawk not feel offense when offended, is to subjugate him/her, to entitle others to abuse him/her, and to ignore his/her reality. After a few hundred years people get tired of that.