As New York Bans Native American Mascots, Some Schools Try to Keep Them

SCHENECTADY, N.Y. — Everywhere you look on the campus of Mohonasen Central School District, there are indications of Indigenous tradition: on street signs, in logos made up of arrows and feathers, and — most centrally — in the profiles of three American Indian men, the emblem of the school’s team name, the Warriors.

But under a new policy expected to be approved by the state Board of Regents on Monday, that nickname may soon have to be changed, part of a nationwide effort to eliminate mascots and logos containing racially insensitive images or words.

According to the National Congress of American Indians, more than 20 states have taken action to change mascot names, using a variety of means, including legislation and actions by human rights commissions.

In New York, the push dates back more than two decades but recently gained strength — and bite — when the State Board of Education sent notice in November to school districts across New York that they had to commit to abandon “Native American mascots” or face “removal of school officers and the withholding of state aid.” The Regents is expected to ratify that policy on Monday.

Under the board of education’s dictum, schools were given until the end of the 2022-23 school year in June to comply or commit to changing team names, logos or imagery that touched on Native culture, with final changes to be completed by June 30, 2025. Last year, the state estimated that about 60 districts were still using such iconography or names, though some have since retired those mascots.

“Students learn as much through observation of their surroundings as they do from direct instruction,” the letter read. “Boards of education that continue to utilize Native American mascots must reflect upon the message their choices convey to students, parents, and their communities.”

In the driveway at Mohonasen Central School, the name “warriors” is prominently displayed.Credit…Cindy Schultz for The New York Times

That letter set off a scramble by dozens of schools across the state to either adopt new names or, in some cases, attempt to use a provision in the policy that allows for some Native mascots to remain if they are endorsed by one of the state’s recognized tribal nations.

Most of those efforts have been met with opposition.

The Oneida Nation, for example, has said it will not approve any district’s pleas for keeping Native-themed imagery, arguing that such “mascotization” has had a negative effect on children.

“The Oneida Indian Nation supports the state’s prohibition against the use of Native American team names, logos and imagery in public schools,” the Nation said in a statement.

The Oneidas, whose historical lands are west of Utica and who run the successful Turning Stone casino, were a force behind an effort to get the Washington, D.C., N.F.L. team — now known as the Commanders — to change its name, which had been a slur referring to Native people, a name that some New York schools had also adopted. In 2021, Cleveland’s baseball franchise also changed its name from the Indians to the Guardians, and other teams have also been under pressure to reconsider names like the Chiefs and the Braves.

Still, some have circulated petitions pleading for districts to keep their mascots, while other districts asked permission from a special advisory panel set up by the Board of Education to consider allowing such names.

The Salamanca High School Warriors taking on Akron High School in a lacrosse match.Credit…Brandon Watson for The New York Times
Dr. Mark Beehler, the superintendent of Salamanca City Central School District, said that he and the Seneca Nation were in discussions to keep the school’s mascot.Credit…Brandon Watson for The New York Times

In the Salamanca school district, in western New York, which sits inside the reservation lands of the Seneca Nation, Mark Beehler, the superintendent, said that school officials and the Senecas were in discussions to keep their mascot — also the Warriors. He noted that the school had both a link to tribal traditions and a large number of Native children enrolled.

Indeed, Dr. Beehler said that an informal survey of the student body had found that “the preponderance of students” wanted to keep the logo and mascot. He said that some Native parents and students had suggested that getting rid of the Warriors was an act of eliminating Native American symbols and Native American heritage.

“They clearly articulated at one point that, ‘We’ve been pushed off our land, our history has been changed, and now we’re faced with having even symbols and identity pushed out of the school that we send our children to,’” he said.

This could very well be one of those baby-with-the-bath-water-type circumstances,” he said, adding that while he understands the Board of Education’s position, he understood sentiment inside his school, too.

“If our district decides that we want to continue to keep the logo and the Seneca Nation agrees and is comfortable with that,” he said, “then we wholeheartedly believe that we should have that option.”

For his part, the Seneca Nation president, Rickey Armstrong Sr., hailed the board of education’s letter in November, calling it “a positive step whose time has long since come.”

From left to right, Mikaela Tennity, Tayoni Galante, and Marijah Skye, students of Indigenous descent attending Salamanca High School, said the mascot is a representation of their heritage.Credit…Brandon Watson for The New York Times

“Names and imagery that mock, degrade and devalue Native heritage, culture and people have no place in our society,” Mr. Armstrong said, adding, “The historic decimation of Native people should not be celebrated in any fashion or used as a community rallying cry, especially in the realm of education.”

James N. Baldwin, the state’s senior deputy commissioner for education policy and author of the November memo, said that the state’s latest effort to end mascot use is part of an effort to expand diversity, equity and inclusion in public schools. He said about 40 schools statewide had reached out for guidance, acknowledging that there had been some pushback from schools and the public.

“Basically our response to them is that Indigenous people have been disrespected by the use of these mascots for literally a few hundred years,” he said. “There is no place for that kind of that level of disrespect in our public schools.”

Some districts have used elections to pick their new mascot. In Schoharie, southwest of Albany, options were both animalistic and poetic, including Coyotes, Hawks, Storm, Titans and Vale, an antiquated form of the word “valley.” (Storm was the front-runner, according to local media.)

But the emotional connection that many parents and students have with their schools — and their mascots — arises in the debate. At Mohonasen, just west of Albany — whose name is a portmanteau formed from three Iroquois nations, the Mohawk, the Onondaga and the Seneca — school officials said they were still awaiting more guidance from the education department as well as the Regents action before making any changes.

School officials at Mohonasen are waiting for guidance from the state and say they have divided feedback from the community.Credit…Cindy Schultz for The New York Times

“Any actions we take will be done after listening carefully to all stakeholders: students, families, alumni, faculty, staff and Mohonasen community members,” said Wade Abbott, the president of the district’s board of education, who added he and others had received “a wide range of feedback from people both within and outside the Mohonasen community.”

One parent and Mohonasen alumna, Danielle Ciampino, who has two children in the district, said she was “praying we don’t lose our Warrior name, because Warrior can have so many meanings,” referencing teams like basketball’s Golden State Warriors.

“We shouldn’t be erasing history, we should be learning from it,” Ms. Ciampino said, adding, “I know I am in the vast majority when I say we want to keep our Warrior name and should be allowed to do so. I will forever be a Mohonasen Warrior.”

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