New York State’s Board of Regents has voted to officially ban school districts statewide from using Native imagery and reductive names for school mascots and sports teams. Affected schools have until the end of the academic year to show concerted efforts to re-brand and must comply with the ban by June 30, 2025.
Last November, the State Education Department issued a letter indicating that the state would be prioritizing and enforcing this decision by 2023. Apparently, the state has been trying to phase out the use of such names and imagery since 2001, but dozens of school districts, including 11 high schools on Long Island, have yet to comply.
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While many, but not all, schools with team names such as “Indians,” “Redmen,” and “Tomahawks” have already voted to adopt new names themselves or retire their mascots, some are still using ambiguous terms such as “Braves” and “Warriors” with accompanying side-profile caricatures of Indigenous men with feathered war bonnets, red skin tones, and aggressive expressions.
“Indian mascots and stereotypes present a misleading image of Indian people and feed the historic myths that have been used to whitewash a history of oppression,” the National Congress of American Indians stated on its website ahead of a nationwide campaign to eliminate harmful and derogatory imagery of Indigenous people from educational environments.
Longstanding research also indicates that the use of Indigenous mascots and team names, which lean into negative and dehumanizing stereotypes of surviving Indigenous populations, has a negative impact on Native students as well as their non-Native compatriots who end up perpetuating misconceptions and stereotypes.
And yet, parents and alumni of school districts adopting new mascots in observance of the research and requests of local Indigenous populations are accusing the government of “erasing history” and “further disrespecting Native Americans.” Many non-Native citizens believe that the mascots honor the Indigenous, memorialize them, and make them a point of pride and school spirit and accuse the State Education Department of wasting taxpayer dollars on non-issues.
In an interview with Hyperallergic, Long Island-based Shinnecock artist and 2021–22 Hyperallergic curatorial fellow Jeremy Dennis said that if this was the best people could do in terms of Native American representation in schools, “there’s clearly a lot of work to be done.”
“They love our culture as long as it’s in the past,” Dennis continued, referring to the antiquated depictions of Indigenous men as warlike and violent. “Parents who are suddenly bothered by this so-called ‘erasure of history’ could have probably done more to help us.”
Dennis brought up New York governor Kathy Hochul’s January decision to veto the Unmarked Grave Act, which would have protected unmarked Native American burial sites from unintentional excavation, as well as her move to veto the Montaukett Act that would have afforded the Montaukett peoples state recognition last December.
“This is a great start,” Dennis said about the decision to eliminate Indigenous mascots. “But schools must also consider including more positive representation of Native Americans. They could commission a Native American artist for a mural, or incorporate visits to reservations and communities as a part of the curriculum.”
It remains unclear whether the state will be allotting funding to affected districts for re-branding or whether the schools will be responsible for restructuring their annual budgets in order to do so.