Every few years, it seems the same debate about why we shouldn’t use Indian names for mascots comes up and regains attention. Some people find the names to be offensive and racist, while fans see only the memories and traditions of their favorite team that they hold so dear. But is fan sentimentality enough to legitimize the potential negative stereotyping, or should teams with names that can be considered racist be forced to change to a less offensive name? The controversy has regained national attention as the Washington Redskins, an NFL team representing our nation’s capital, is taking a lot of heat for their “racist” team name. A controversy like this has everyone getting involved, from Bob Costas to President Obama!
While the Redskins are grabbing national attention, however, this issue has also taken on a local flavor as some in the Katonah-Lewisboro school district are questioning whether our high school team name, the Indians, should be changed. This isn’t the first time John Jay has had a controversy about the Indians team name. According to The New York Times, back in 1989 the Campus Congress, in a 33-17 vote, decided to abandon the name Indians because it promoted the negative stereotype of a race more than it honored Native American heritage. But over the years, while offensive cries of “scalp ’em” are no longer heard at John Jay sporting events, the Indians nickname and mascot has made its way back to prominence at John Jay.
Surely, a school should not promote the negative stereotyping of a particular group of people — especially if it offends members of that group. For this reason, in 1994 St. John’s University, for example, changed its name from the Redmen, a nickname considered a slur by Native American groups, to the Red Storm. But while nicknames such as Redmen and Redskins are widely considered racial slurs based on the skin color of Native Americans, can the same be said of other Indian nicknames, like Braves, Seminoles, Warriors, Chiefs, or Indians?
On one side of the argument, it is understandable that some believe that using Indian mascots and names to represent a sports team trivializes Native Americans. Such names may very well send the wrong message, mocking a proud heritage and reinforcing negative images, thereby promoting disrespect of Native Americans.
On the other side, however, many names are not a slur but are intended to pay tribute to Native American traits and tribes. In some cases, people might not otherwise know about the local Native American tribes, such as the Florida State University Seminoles, who have written permission from the Seminole Indians to use the name and mascot. In other cases, using the Indian names and mascots is intended as a positive representation to embody the athletic prowess, courage and honor of Native Americans.
In the case of the John Jay Indians, the nickname and mascot, first used in the first half of the last century, were intended to honor our local heritage as symbolized by the honorable Chief Katonah, who once owned the land surrounding our district. The students of John Jay have since embraced the nickname to symbolize our winning tradition. We have also recently created The Tribe in the tradition of Native American tribes to bring the school together and support our brave and honorable athletes.
So, to answer whether our nickname, Indians, promotes racist Native American stereotypes or whether it honors the heritage of a proud and courageous people, we must look deep inside ourselves to discover our intent. Are we mocking Native Americans, having fun at the expense of a proud people? Or are we honoring Chief Katonah, promoting our local heritage and embracing the positive traits that heritage represents? I believe, in the case of John Jay High School, it is the latter.