Despite calls for calm and respect from Onteora Central School District board of education president Bobbi Schnell, a tense, hostile mood settled over the June 21 meeting as supporters and debunkers of the recent 5-2 board approval to remove the Onteora Indian mascot and replace it with an eagle clashed verbally.
Approximately 40 people came out to speak, taking a little over two-hours, while dozens of others attended to shore up the speakers from their point of view.
Schnell read the district code of conduct that included refraining from intimidation, bullying, threatening, or disruption. Those rules were not always followed. Signs were posted with the code, hoping to avoid a repeat of the year 2000, when the mascot was temporarily removed, resulting in slashed tires and threatened lives. Whispers of threats have been circulating throughout the district this time, too, and a police officer was present.
Three-minutes of public speaking time was enforced, however people often went over the intrusive alarm sound coming from a clock projected on a screen. There were students, parents, employees, alumni, and community members who spoke with anger, sadness, and remembrance. Some accused the supporters of its removal, as behaving too “politically correct,” whereas the other side said it was another way of calling them, “outsiders.” People who wanted to keep the Indian logo, called for a binding referendum and asked for voters to decide. Accusing the Board of a late night secret vote, there were speakers who called for the five trustees who voted in favor of its removal to resign.
Schnell sought order several times when boos, hisses, and angry comments were heard as the new mascot, an eagle, was given support.
The floodgates opened with former board trustee Cindy O’Connor speaking in favor of the Indian Mascot, and her attack was directed toward Schnell. “Trustee Schnell, we’ve known each other for a very long time since Kindergarten, over 20 years,” O’Connor said. “I voted for you, but I cannot tell you how disappointed I was watching you at the helm of our school district, carry out a process that lacked such transparency and consideration for the community. Congratulations,” she continued sarcastically, “you and your board divided this community in one swift thoughtless move.”
Her words were met with a hearty applause from Indian Mascot supporters, and the night careened on with vehement arguments from both sides.
The origin of the name Onteora was debated — whether it was from Native American meaning, or “just made up by some white guy,” as one person titled it. History of the area was talked about by both sides, with mentions of its rich Native American legacy…however one side of the argument called it “Indian,” culture, with the other side using the title, “Native American.” Some audience members wore tee shirts with the words, “Save the Indian,” written on the front.
Student Ali Baily said, “Native Americans expect us to get it right already, especially since it was one Italian white guy, Amerigo Vespucci who in the 1400’s corrected Columbus and told the world that this was not the Indies, but the New World which was Native America. Therefore people living here are indeed Native Americans, not Indians, OK?” More hearty applause.
Native American perspective
Matoaka Little Eagle who is Native American from three tribes offered her perspective on what it was like to view an Indian Mascot. “I have been confronted by people with lipstick on their face, headdresses and people shouting up and down, and war whooping,” she said. “I know what it’s like to be disrespected, I know what it’s like to be made a caricature. Mascots make native people caricatures. If you want to be proud in something, be proud by something meaningful to you, something in your culture. You don’t need to take something from us, there has already been enough taken from us.” Her words garnered hearty applause with a standing ovation from the people in support of the mascot removal.
Bernie Zhan said his Great Grandmother was, “full blood Indian,” and not offended by the symbol. “I think that by having a name ‘Indian’ associated with this school and many other teams, it’s more an honor because it remembers that there [are] Indians still in this country.”
Lisa Phillips from Newtown Connecticut said, “…I’ve been very upset to come across the divisive language in this debate, what were called ‘newcomers,’ have done, there was even a mention of an old fashioned lynch mob-please stop this…The harm of this kind of rhetoric cannot be understated.” But the night was just warming up. Sally Rothchild, reminded people that her daughter, now graduated, began the discussion over a year ago when she was student representative on the Board. “I know this is a difficult issue for the community,” Rothchild said, “one of the things I think about, on the sports teams for years, there is no imagery that is allowed to be depicted, for fear of being culturally insensitive.”
At one point, Debbie Roberts accused the board of being preoccupied on their laptops and called them, “rude, we want to be heard, we want to be respected!” Someone from the audience yelled out, “And laughing and yawning doesn’t really help either!”
Roberts continued, “The student Government is a club, just club, not representatives, chosen by the students. They wanted a campaign of discrimination and deception at the beginning of the school year. The student representative (Raegan Loheide) deliberately and intentionally misled the Board of Education…I think there should be consequences for that.” A few people addressed Loheide directly in a scolding way, as she sat quietly at the Board table.
Pro-Indian Mascot supporter Sue Green said, “Why would you want to change history and not just choose to educate those that think it’s a racist, dishonorable, or discriminatory symbol, this is a school, lets educate.”
Danyelle Kovacs was crying, when she spoke about her son, Damien who attended the High School and died recently in a car accident. “During that time, the school district united, became one, to support my family. The Superintendent came to support my family, so did Mr. Edelman (High School Principal). My son was a true Indian. He was the leader of his tribe.” Addressing the Board, she said, “you made a decision without contacting anybody. You spoke to students who weren’t even elected into office-a club, it doesn’t make sense…You made a decision when our community was mourning my son’s loss, we were grieving, no one was in the capacity to make a decision like this and you made the decision. You compromised the integrity of the school district and that’s not OK.”
Once all public commentary was finished, the Board returned to boilerplate business of approving the expenditure of funds, contract retainers for summer building improvements and programs. School Board Trustee Rob Kurnit was given a hug from Schnell as a final good-bye since it was his last day.