If you heard a loud noise coming from Bucks County last week, it was me smacking my forehead during yet another public discussion about whether the word Redskins is a racial slur.

Simple answer: It’s a slur.

Simple solution: Stop using it.

But simple isn’t easy in Bucks these days. The state Human Relations Commission has sued the Neshaminy School District over its use of the Redskins name for its athletic teams, alleging the word is discriminatory, and inhibits inclusion and learning. Hearings are taking place.

Representatives from the state Human Relations Commission and representatives of the Neshaminy School District during a hearing in Bucks County.
Ronnie Polaneczky
Representatives from the state Human Relations Commission and representatives of the Neshaminy School District during a hearing in Bucks County.

They follow on the heels of umpteen similar discussions in umpteen similar U.S. school districts that also use a Redskins mascot. All have faced blowback in the last decade as Native Americans have signed on to a “Not Your Mascot” campaign to demand that racially offensive words like Redskin (and even the word Indian itself) be dropped as team names.

In Michigan, the Belding High School Redskins became the Black Knights. In Houston, the Lamar High School Redskins became the Texans. In Wilmington, the Conrad Schools of Science Redskins became the Red Wolves.

Neshaminy, though, has dug in its heels. The district’s defense is that its students aren’t offended by the name (which I doubt – several of the high school paper’s former editors refused to use the name in stories about the teams). Besides, the district adds, it’s not as though students are running around dressed like Native Americans.

Ah, but they used to, says Annemarie Remy, who attended last week’s hearings.

A 1987 grad of Neshaminy, Remy is of Lenni Lenape descent. Her late grandfather Bill Thompson, known as Chief Whippoorwill in his tribe, was a dignified and beloved figure in Neshaminy schools, where he enraptured students with tales of Native American history.

Remy recalls football pep rallies for the Neshaminy Redskins where students with painted faces would wave tomahawks and maniacally hoot themselves into a frenzy.

“It was so awful, I didn’t even have words to describe it – my grandfather hated that it was happening,” says Remy, whose childhood weekends were spent at Native American events learning her ancestors’ sacred customs and dances. “My family has been trying to get rid of the Redskins name for 40 years. It’s appropriation, and it’s disrespectful.”

But it’s not meant to be, protests 1958 Neshaminy alum Walter Wolf, whose two daughters attended the school and whose granddaughter, a current Neshaminy student, plays for the Redskins hockey team. He wants his alma mater to hang on to the name, which he says conjures such warm memories for his family.

“It’s part of a proud tradition,” said Wolf during a break in the hearings. “The word is meant as an honor.”

Walter Wolf
Ronnie Polaneczky
Walter Wolf

But if it’s not taken as one, why use it at all? Where’s the kindness in that? The decency?

Has any other ethnic minority group had to fight to not be called a racial slur? Or chided to reimagine a slur as an honor? Only Native Americans – whose land the European settlers took and whose ancestors were targeted for genocide – have been reduced to demanding that everyone please stop reducing their race to a cartoonish stereotype.

Supporters of the Redskins slur will point to two surveys showing that just 9 percent of polled American Indians were offended by how it is used by the Washington Redskins NFL team (whose owner, Daniel Snyder, vows to keep the name). Still, that equates to 486,000 members of the country’s 5.4 million Native American population, which is an awful lot of hurt.

Not that the number should matter, says Rich Messina, who attended the hearings with his girlfriend, Alix Paul, and their baby, Roland.

“Keeping the name desensitizes a racial slur and even promotes acceptance of it,” says Messina. “There’s no defending it.”

Rich Messina and Alix Paul with their son Roland.
Ronnie Polaneczky
Rich Messina and Alix Paul with their son Roland.

What Neshaminy School District leaders appear to venerate a little too much are the opinions of community members whose fond memories of the school are so entwined with the Redskins moniker that killing the mascot feels akin to killing a precious shared identity. But isn’t that what memories are for — to outlive changes made by time?

Still, grief needn’t be the outcome, says Mark Pruitt, principal of the Conrad Schools of Science in Wilmington. In 2017, after intense community discussion and debate, the school’s team was renamed the Red Wolves.

“In hindsight, I totally underestimated the passion the community had for the Redskins name,” says Pruitt.

The happy news, he says, is how positive the transition was – no one picketed or organized to reverse the school board’s decision. Instead, the students set up an enthusiastic, diverse committee to painstakingly research mascot ideas, which were then voted upon by the student body in an online poll. Red Wolves was the hands-down winner.

“We wear more Red Wolves gear than we ever wore Redskins gear,” he says.

As for Neshaminy, he says, he wishes them the best of luck.

“This issue brings out passion on both sides,” he says. “But once the debate is over, there’s a lot more that goes into a successful high school than a school mascot. We have a very successful school. If we didn’t have a mascot, we’d still be successful.”