Indian mascot supporters, opposition clash at Onteora

School district residents express opinions at Onteora board meeting. (photo by Dion Ogust)

School district residents express opinions at Onteora board meeting. (photo by Dion Ogust)

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.

There are 8 comments

  1. Mike Shultis

    What the BOE voted on June 7th was procedurally out of order and therefore non binding. There should be a Public Referendum to put this issue behind us once and for all. Which ever way the majority votes will be our future.
    For the BOE to pull a resolution out of their hat at a workshop meeting without nary a notice to the public is poor leadership at its best. What were they afraid of?
    Let’s get it right and stop dividing the community and put on the ballot for a public vote. This way no one can say it was unfair, majority rules in a democracy! Do the right thing Onteora BOE, put it to a vote and take yourselves out of the equation

  2. Cindy O'Connor

    Woodstock Times you missed the point:

    My observations from the June 7th Onteora Board meeting and to clarify, my objection to this change was the Process.

    While I sat at the June 7th board meeting and watch the vote unfold to change our mascot it became crystal clear to me that this vote had already taken place prior to the meeting with four board members presenting prepared speeches and the fifth board member shooting from the hip. Trustee Allison and Trustee Story did exactly what they were supposed to do when a topic is on the agenda for discussion, ask questions and ask for more information. I’m not sure which sign was most obvious, the boards prepared speeches or trustee Story and Allison’s lack of awareness to the whole situation, being left out of the majority loop, and trying to slow the down the process and do the right thing. This Onteora board seems like a cohesive board keeping the President in the loop, so when a board member thinks he or she might make a motion, two things happen, you tell your president if they don’t already know and you make sure you have a second for your motion. So I can tell you with most certainty that this motion was discussed by three and those three new they had two more to support their agenda. They had the perfect storm.

    Trustee Schnell we have known each other for a very long time, over 20 years when our children started kindergarten. I cannot tell you how disappointed I was to watch you at the helm of our school district carry out a process that lacked such transparency and consideration for our community. Congratulations, you and your board divided this community in one swift thoughtless move.

    This board convenes committees for every topic you can imagine, Wi-Fi, later start time, panel that seeks use for the west Hurley school, and the list goes on and on and on. Why not a community committee with regard to the mascot. If the district has evolved as this board said on June 7th, what are you afraid of? WHY are you afraid to bring this to the community?
    The timing of your decision – What were you thinking when you did this a month before graduation, testing and while our district is still grieving the death of a classmate? Are you that far removed from what is going on in the district?

    Statements at the June 7th meeting – Trustee Salem you made a statement to the effect, sometimes you need to cause mayhem and clean up the pieces after, well that is a pretty bold statement for a board member and I do not believe that this district will stand for three year of mayhem and mess, very unprofessional! I have been on the board, I have been in the minority and the majority and I know board politics and to me the writing is on the wall as the board shifts heading toward their organizational meeting next month. My words of advice to Trustee Schnell, as your board is about to change with your current vice president leaving, choose your VP wisely, have a back bone, and do not make mayhem and mess the new philosophy of this school board. Trustee Salem you also stated this process was sloppy something else this district does not want for three more years.

    The survey the board use to support their decision – This board did not have the student governments club survey in their board packet prior to their vote two weeks ago. How do I know this? Trustee Story had to ask how many students completed the survey, 107 she was told. If the survey was in the board packet why would she need to ask this? I can guarantee it was emailed after it was foiled by the community. How can you let 107 students decide this issue? Trustee Salem stated on his Facebook page the board let the students decide – 107 which were split approximately 50 to keep the mascot and 50 to change the mascot.

    Congratulations again, you woke a sleeping giant and lost the trust of many. Maybe this was a wake- up call for the district in regard to the philosophy of this board and how they handle the process. I ask this board to reverse your decision and let the community vote in May 2017. Place a binding referendum on the ballot in the spring. Let the real numbers prevail. Either way, we will be ok. Let the process happen, we are not afraid of the outcome, why are you? If the board does not do the right thing and bring the mascot issue to a vote in May 2017

  3. Veronica VanKleeck

    Our past behavior around this is disgusting, and (while admittedly I am making a less than PC comment here) redneck. I went to Onteora as a student k-12. I am proud that I went to that school, proud of our sports teams, music and the educators, some of whom remain friends. That pride is not about a mascot. A mascot! There are so many worthier causes for people to get fired up about. This one is silly and demeaning. Handling any discontent with violence and property damage is completely unacceptable, and proves the inappropriate nature of the mascot in the first place. There is no need to be proud of our portraying native americans as fighters/warriors. Who are we being if we turn to violence to voice our discontent. Small minded, inappropriate behavior. Will you DIE if the mascot is changed?? No. Again, worthier causes, like the financially challenged in the area, and their hungry children. Take on a cause worthy of this attention.

  4. Carol Maltby

    We elect the Board of Education to make decisions based on educational criteria, not emotional or nostalgic criteria. Keeping or retiring the racially stereotyped Indian mascot is a decision that belongs to the Board, not the community. It’s educationally unsound for the school district to have racial stereotypes be an approved part of the district’s policies and activities.

  5. Herb Wolfe

    Come on people, join the times and forget about your racist attitudes about Indians! As someone who endures the struggle I am still amused when some white person says their grandmother was an Indian. That’s cute but highly inaccurate. We call those people wannabes because ALL my grandparents were full-bloods! I have neither the patience not the willingness to have you people set us back in time and have you dictate what you think we should be. Enough already.

  6. Joe Guglielmetti

    Tip O’neill famously once said “all politics is local” . School boards are as local as you can get and are elected by the people, we get what we vote for.

    The progressive left has for 50 years owned the educational system in America and their politically correct “in your face” dogma that is exhibited in this sad saga about the Mascot in addition to the costly mediocre ( number 26 in the world) education our children receive. When I attended Onteora it was a class act and not nearly as costly as today. Sadly a “loud” minority has won again.

    Had enough, speak up people and vote Republican in November. BTW I am an Independent but very tired of the platform that the Democrats are following and I am not crazy about the Republicans but at least I can live with 75% of their platform and Trump.

  7. tom cole

    I would just like to know what you are going to call the Tomahawk Queen and the school year book?

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