The Onteora Central School District issued a press release on June 11 officially announcing the Eagle as the new Middle/High school mascot, replacing the Indian Mascot. Additionally, because funding is under scrutiny from taxpayers, a statement from School Board President Bobbi Schnell, noted that out of 44 sports teams at the Boiceville site, only four currently have uniforms referencing the Indian, that will have to be replaced. Other teams have “Onteora” or just an “O” logo on their uniforms. Interim Superintendent Victoria McLaren wrote in an email that the Onteora boys modified and varsity basketball, varsity baseball, and varsity wrestling have Indian logos. The football team helmets that once had an arrow, were replaced in recent years with no logo.
Schnell wrote on behalf of the Board that, “The District is developing a plan for the transition. This will include selecting a new Eagle logo, notifying the appropriate athletic associations, and replacing the name/logo on any signage, communications, or other materials which featured the former mascot.” She also noted that, “the District will look to other districts that have made the mascot changes for recommendations and best practices.”
McLaren stated in the press release that the Onteora Mascot controversy began in 2000, and in 2001 the New York State Education Department recommended the retirement of Indian mascots, nicknames, and symbols in public schools. “New York State Schools now have the Dignity for All Students Act, which has at its core the mandate to provide a learning environment free of discrimination or harassment.” The mascot was removed in 2000, only to have it reinstated after a non-binding public referendum in 2001.
The controversy over the symbol quietly never went away. In 2005 Superintendent Justine Winters who served for a year before an untimely death due to cancer, was working behind the scenes on a plan to remove it and believed that, because of the volatile atmosphere it created, people were afraid to confront it again. During an interview with Woodstock Times 11 years ago, she explained that the students proposed a feather for the inside cover of the yearbook in order to maintain the Native American image while not causing anger. At the time, Winters said, “Wouldn’t it be a wonderful outcome to have the students resolve this in a meaningful way?”
At the June 7, School Board meeting prior to the five-to-two vote to retire the Indian Mascot, a handful of students who led the charge for change, spoke on behalf of choosing a new Mascot. Student and Vice President of the Human Rights Club, Jack Warren said during history class that students learned about the atrocities that were committed against Native Americans and how the end result of this was poverty and squalor for a diminished population. “This becomes more relevant today when we learned about the American Psychological Association findings that Native American mascots-Indian mascots hurt Native American students sense of self esteem, sense of identity, also we learned that Native Americans have a high suicide rate,” he said, and titled the mascot a “racial stereotype.”
Students began discussing removing the mascot last year when it was brought to the attention of the Board through a past student representative. It was acted upon this year through an online petition (around Thanksgiving time), surveys, forums during and afterschool, and finally a vote among four possible mascots; eagle, bear, thunder, and mountain lion. Out of approximately 600 Middle/High School students, 107 voted, and this led to complaints that not enough students participated in the process. But student Lucia Legnini commented during public discussion, “Everyone in the school had the opportunity to act upon their opinions. It’s difficult to argue that this is something that can’t happen because not everybody has voted or not everybody has attended the forum.” She also noted that the mascot goes against the philosophy of a PBIS (Positive Behavior Intervention and Support) school, which the district participates in. PBIS is meant to improve social culture and behavioral climate, in classrooms and schools.
Not everyone views it as a racial stereotype according to newly elected Trustee Dale Allison. “There are a lot of kids, whose families grew up in this area and go back many generations. They don’t see the Indian as being a racial or degrading or anything of that sort and I think it’s more a part of their roots for the people who’ve stayed in this area.”
The statement from Schnell also reads, “The Board recognizes that members of the community have passionately different opinion about the mascot. We understand that many of our students’ alumni, and community members feel a deep connection to the Indian. At the same time, we also recognize that many feel a change in the mascot is long overdue.”
Schnell asked the community to remember, “kindness and how we treat each other,” as what matters most.