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New York will require the end of Native American mascots being used in schools

 The Cambridge Indians image
Dave Lucas
WAMC Composite Photo / Facebook
The Cambridge Indians image

Thursday evening, the New York State Education Department ordered all school districts in the state to remove “Indian” mascots and associated Native American imagery from the public school system.

The memo, signed by State Education Department Senior Deputy Commissioner James Baldwin, warned "districts that continue to utilize Native American team names, logos, and/or imagery without current approval from a recognized tribe must immediately come into compliance." Baldwin said the memo was not issued lightly.

"It is a problem that was cited 21 years ago by then Commissioner Richard Mills in terms of having safe and nurturing school communities and focusing on respect and academic achievement for all students," said Baldwin. "This has been a very long-standing issue here in New York. Most recently, about a year and a half ago, the current Board of Regents adopted a policy encouraging school districts to review their own policies, practices related to issues around diversity, equity and inclusion. So we got to a point where we have roughly 50 to 60 districts that are still using these mascots, which are offensive and which are not consistent with the kinds of values that we want to see reflected in our public schools."

The department said districts that fail to commit to replacing such names and logos by the end of the 2022-23 school year may be in violation of the Dignity Act. The penalties for such a violation include the removal of school officers and the withholding of state funding.

The memo cited the ongoing controversy surrounding the Cambridge Central School District — in New York’s Capital Region – which voted to retire its “Indians” team name, logo and mascot in June 2021, then reversed the decision a month later after new school board members took office.

Community members challenged the reversal and in August Education Commissioner Betty Rosa declared the name and imagery violated the state Dignity for All Students Act and had to go. The Washington County district filed an appeal, but a New York State Supreme Court judge decided the Commissioner's ruling was valid and Cambridge was ordered to make the changes by July 1, 2022. The school board then authorized the district’s legal counsel to file a Notice of Appeal.

2007 CCS graduate Dillon Honyoust is Iroquois, a member of the Onondaga Beaver Clan, and lives in the school district. He has supported keeping Cambridge Central's Native American mascot and moniker.

“The name and logo, you know, is an icon that leads us to the truth," Honyoust said. "When you think about Native Americans, any icon that you see, is about strength, honor, pride. Always a positive symbol to portray the strength of our heritage.”

Honyoust believes the Cambridge Indians name and logo have been a positive symbol in the community for decades.

"If you were to envision all of the names and logos to disappear, to be gone, what kind of effect will that have on our heritage?" asks Honyoust. "Is that preserving our heritage or is that increasing the genocide, the erasing of the American Indian?"

According to the state education department, more than 50 school districts in New York still employ Native American imagery, among them, Glens Falls City Schools, which has used the Indians moniker and a red GF within a black arrowhead as a sports logo since 1941. Skye Heritage is the district's director of communications.

"So we have every intention of honoring this ruling that's made by NYSED," said Heritage. "And while the order contains a deadline of June 2023, to affirmatively commit to replacing the Native American team name, logo, or imagery, we have not yet determined a timeline for removal of Indian associated items on our sports uniforms, our furniture and in our buildings, such as the high school gymnasium floor."

John Kane is a Native American activist who attended Cambridge schools from the third grade until he graduated from high school in 1978. In 2020, Kane traveled from his Western New York home to Cambridge to formally request the district change its name and logo.

"I'm happy that this ruling came, I think NYSED had had the authority to do this all along," Kane said. "I'm glad that it wasn't going to rely as many hoped that the state legislature would take action, because that process is long and drawn out. I think this is clearly puts an end to the battle in Cambridge. And I think it saves a lot of other schools from having to go through the anguish of challenging this debate."

There is a sentence in the education department memo which states "Those school districts that continue to utilize Native American team names, logos, and/or imagery without current approval from a recognized tribe must immediately come into compliance."

Kane said whatever the case, he doesn't think Cambridge stands a chance of getting approval from any federally recognized tribe. Baldwin seems to agree.

"That particular phrase is really targeted at some school districts that are connected to Native American communities," Baldwin said. "And in those cases, the tribal government that is served by those school districts have authorized the use of that mascot. This is not intended to have school districts shopping around for tribes to bless their use of such mascots."

The Cambridge Central School District Board of Education said it plans to proceed with its appeal of the commissioner's and the trial court’s decisions.
Copyright 2022 WAMC Northeast Public Radio. To see more, visit WAMC Northeast Public Radio.

Dave Lucas