Adirondack districts move away from Native American team names
By Mike De Socio
If there’s one town in the Adirondacks where a sports team called “The Indians” might not be a stretch, it’s Indian Lake. It’s in the name, after all.
But David Snide, the superintendent of Indian Lake Central School District, was not disappointed when the teams became “The Orange” after merging athletics programs with Long Lake in 2017.
“I truly do appreciate and understand the significance of school mascots, and the names that are offending to certain cultures,” he said.
The name change was not primarily motivated by concerns around cultural appropriation; it was simply a side effect of the merger. But it was fortuitous, as a growing movement nationwide is prompting schools in the Adirondacks to reconsider mascots that use Native American names and symbols, and are largely seen as offensive by the Native American community.
How one district did it
Find out how Peru Central School,
in the northeastern part of the park,
went through a recent mascot transformation.
“We’re out there talking about the well-documented harms these mascots cause to native people, particularly native youth. They really misrepresent who tribal nations and people are today,” said Ian Record, vice president of tribal governance and special projects at the National Congress of American Indians.
Record is leading a campaign to end the use of these mascots in sports, something that tribal nations have made a priority since the 1960s. More recently, Record’s team has created a nationwide database of school districts, and helps administrators through the process of changing a name or mascot.
Currently, there are 110 schools in 52 districts across New York state that still use Native American names or mascots, according to the database. In the Adirondack region, that includes the Lake George Warriors, the Glens Falls Indians and the Corinth Tomahawks. Peru recently switched names from the Indians to the Nighthawks. Saranac Lake made the change 20 years ago from the Redskins to Red Storm.
Efforts to change these names, however, are not universally embraced. In some communities, nostalgia, pride and concerns about local history often become roadblocks. The National Congress of American Indians says these objections often don’t hold water.
“Not only are we against these mascots and we’re telling you they don’t honor us, we’ve been telling you for decades,” Record said.
So these concerns are not new, but they have been vaulted into the mainstream in the past year, especially as the Black Lives Matter movement reignited concerns about race.
“The rest of America is suddenly paying attention,” Record said.
Good faith, good listening
Joe Bruchac believes that most school districts create Native American mascots in good faith, out of a desire to recognize historical or sentimental significance in a community.
Bruchac, who serves as executive director of the Ndakinna Education Center in Saratoga County, is a registered member of the Nulhegan-Abenaki Nation. He has written and consulted on this issue for decades.
“There has been a process of both celebrating and dehumanizing native people for centuries,” he said.
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The desire to attach Native American significance to sports teams is not entirely misplaced, Bruchac pointed out, as modern team sports have their roots in traditional native games. But creating mascots without any real connection to or permission from local tribes is ultimately harmful, Brushac said.
“You are doing something that is not really honoring or respecting,” he said. He often reminds people that no other ethnic or racial group in the country is “mascot-ized” in this way.
Because that may not be an easy pill to swallow for student athletes and communities with strong team pride, Bruchac recommends school districts approach this discussion gently.
“It’s an issue that needs to be addressed with respect for both sides,” Bruchac said.
That’s also crucial for creating buy-in for new mascots, and avoiding strong feelings of resentment in a community.
Record takes a similar approach when he works with school districts. He said most of them take it seriously, and make positive changes when armed with the correct information.
His main piece of advice? “It’s to have a genuine commitment to listening and learning, first and foremost, which unfortunately is not always present,” he said.
Letting students lead
Although Indian Lake’s sports teams have a new name, they don’t yet have an actual symbol or mascot.
“The most recent conversation is, what kind of mascot, what kind of branding do we want?” said Snide, the superintendent.
A shared committee of students, faculty and community members are trying to find something that feels unique to them, but not offensive to any groups, especially Native Americans.
“We want to be respectful of everybody in coming up with this,” Snide said.
Some of the school’s student artists are already at work on new ideas, ranging from mountain landscapes to orange sunsets. Whatever it ends up being, Snide is confident it will be embraced by the community, as the name already has been; pre-pandemic, crowds gathered at games had no problem cheering, “Go Orange!”
Record, too, says he’s seen schools across the country allow students to take the lead with logo design contests and fundraising campaigns to cover the costs of new uniforms.
It is unclear whether the remaining Adirondack school districts with Native American mascots will follow a similar path.
In a prepared statement, the Lake George Central School District said it has formed a Culture and Climate Committee that will discuss, among other things, the school’s Native American imagery.
“We have a deep awareness of the significance of this topic and the current national events that have brought it to the forefront. We recognize the immediacy of the issue, and the increased focus has helped guide our understanding,” the district said in a statement.
The office of school superintendent Lynne Rutnik declined a request for an interview.
In Glens Falls, the office of school superintendent Paul Jenkins did not respond to a request for comment. It is unclear if that school district is considering a mascot change.
Keeping native history alive
Native Americans advocates almost universally agree that it’s time to retire these mascots. But that doesn’t mean schools must, or should, abandon local history.
This is often a concern that arises when districts consider the issue. Record said it’s mostly used as a crutch to resist changing mascots, and noted the real issue is a lack of accurate curriculum on Native American history in the first place.
“You have a sub-par curriculum that’s not doing nearly enough to educate the leaders of tomorrow,” he said.
So if a district is truly concerned about honoring local tribes, Record suggests consulting with tribal leaders to design or expand a new curriculum.
In the Adirondacks, Bruchac and the Ndakinna Education Center might be a good place to start. It offers classes in a wide range of topics, from wilderness to first aid and storytelling. Before the pandemic, it also ran a festival in Saratoga Springs that would draw as many as 4,000 people.
Bruchac sees himself as more of an advisor than an activist on these matters. He looks to approach the conversation with openness and a flexible point of view.
“I honestly believe we can do a lot if we listen to each other,” Bruchac said.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story had misspelled Joe Bruchac’s last name. It’s been corrected.