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In Pennsylvania public schools, an ‘epidemic’ of Native American mascots and nicknames

In Pennsylvania, a study found, “Indians” was the second-most common high school nickname, behind only Panthers.

Donna Fann-Boyle of Langhorne, a leader in the Coalition of Natives and Allies, has been fighting for years to make the Neshaminy school district drop its nickname. The round sticker on her car supports the American Indian Movement of Central Texas.
Donna Fann-Boyle of Langhorne, a leader in the Coalition of Natives and Allies, has been fighting for years to make the Neshaminy school district drop its nickname. The round sticker on her car supports the American Indian Movement of Central Texas.Read moreALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Staff Photographer

Four years ago, at least 67 public schools in Pennsylvania embraced Native American nicknames and mascots — Red Raiders, Little Indians, Big Reds, Indians, Redskins.

Today, after long, contentious debate and amid vast protests across America against systemic racism, that number has hardly moved, dropping to 64.

One name, Mohawks, was eliminated because of a school merger in Wilkes-Barre last year. The second, Indians, was retired last month by Unionville High School in Kennett Square, Chester County. On Wednesday, the Radnor School Board voted to abandon its Raider nickname and imagery.

“It’s our job to support Native individuals in getting these mascots removed,” said Jason Landau Goodman, executive director of the Pennsylvania Youth Congress, a Harrisburg-based advocate for inclusive education. “Wrong is wrong.”

A new PYC study on “racist public school mascots” in Pennsylvania calls the use of American Indian imagery an “epidemic,” creating a hostile environment for students “by promoting wholly offensive imagery as a core community value.”

During the 2019-20 school year, PYC said, more than 55,162 students attended Pennsylvania schools with Indian nicknames and mascots. That included at least 397 Native students among an estimated 1,139 statewide.

“I’m just mind-boggled,” said Donna Fann-Boyle, a parent of Cherokee descent who is fighting to make the Neshaminy School District drop its Redskins nickname. “Everyone thinks that Pennsylvania is a pretty progressive state,” but “it really is a racist state.”

PYC found that Indians was the second-most common high school nickname, behind only Panthers.

Time and again, said Fann-Boyle, cofounder of the advocacy group Coalition of Natives and Allies, school board leaders and residents insist the names are honorific, a falsity that extends into classrooms.

“Kids are taught about William Penn and how he had this great relationship with Natives,” she said, “but his kids ripped off the Natives, they stole land, they lied. There are all these underlying issues that the truth is never told about.”

The Philadelphia region is rife with Indigenous iconography, from stereotypical statues to South Jersey high schools named Lenape (home to teams called Indians), Shawnee (Renegades), Cherokee (Chiefs), and Seneca (Golden Eagles).

» READ MORE: For local Native Americans, a reckoning over hurtful images goes way beyond one South Philadelphia statue

Movements for change have met resistance.

The Neshaminy district has spent at least $435,000 on its fight to keep its nickname. And legal challenges have stalled the Kenney administration’s plan to take down the Christopher Columbus statue in South Philadelphia.

The Radnor School Board vote followed a student-led campaign and a long-simmering community debate. More than 130 people had commented on the change, for and against.

“This erasing of our [Radnor] culture truly breaks my heart,” Robin Dugan wrote to the board, urging members to avoid “pandering to a few noisy residents.”

Chip Graham, of Wayne, said the decision should be guided by the sentiments of Native peoples, but “if we erase all of the Native American names, how does that recognize them? Cancel culture has gone too far.”

The board voted 9-0 to remove the Indian imagery, and 8-1 to retire the Raider name. The latter was a tougher decision, some members said.

The nickname was adopted in the 1930s, with no connection to Native Americans, said board member Nancy Monahan. She voted to keep a name that she said signified “competitive spirit.”

» READ MORE: Chestnut Hill church asks Philadelphia Cricket Club to retire its ‘offensive’ Native American logo

Other members concluded that whatever the original intent, the name had offended. The family of former Radnor teacher and coach Emerson Metoxen, a member of the Oneida Nation, had opposed it, they noted.

Many in the school community have felt “hurt, shamed, conflicted, and even alienated by being a Raider,” said board member Amy Goldman. “They’ve been saying this for quite a while, but I’m not really sure we’ve been listening.”

Radnor’s action followed the Unionville-Chadds Ford School Board’s 9-0 vote to eliminate the Unionville High School mascot, putting an end to years of discussion and a summer of specific study. That, too, came after pressure from students and alumni amid the national Black Lives Matter protests in June.

“It became apparent very quickly this was an issue our student body was very active about,” said senior Jenna Ahart, co-editor of the Unionville Post student newspaper, which changed its name from Indian Post this summer after surveying students. “It’s hard to call yourself a newspaper representing the student body when something as integral as the publication name isn’t in line with the majority.”

Senior co-editor Olivia Kenyon — who as a freshman wrote a column arguing for the name change — predicted that school boards in other districts will face renewed calls to act.

“Honestly,” she said, “the problem is, will the adults listen to the kids?”

Among the 67 Native mascots that PYC first identified in 2016 was the Elmer L. Meyers Junior/Senior High School Mohawks in Wilkes-Barre. That name disappeared when three city high schools were absorbed into a new, single athletic team known as the Wolfpack.

Nationally, decades of Native-led advocacy have brought progress, including the summer decision by the Washington pro football team to drop its name. An estimated 2,000 Native references in sports have been eliminated since 1985, said the National Congress of American Indians, “but the practice has not gone away.”

In Harrisburg, some community members around Susquehanna Township High School are advocating to get rid of the Indians nickname and a logo that depicts a Native American man’s head on a large “S.”

“A lot of alumni want to hold on to it because it’s just ‘tradition,’” said James Crews, a member of the Shinnecock Indian Nation and a 1989 Susquehanna graduate who wants the usages retired. “The only thing I’m trying to present to them is it’s offensive and insensitive, and maybe it’s time for a change.”

When he and other Native students attended Susquehanna, Crews said, “we were looked at along the lines of what the mascot represented — one specific look attributed to all Native peoples, when we were really diverse cultures.”

The United States is home to 573 federally recognized tribes, each with its own language, art, culture, and spirituality. Indigenous people in Pennsylvania note that their ancestors lived here long before the arrival of white Europeans.

» READ MORE: In Philly lies a casualty of the Battle of the Little Bighorn — and a question of duty

The Lenape were the original inhabitants of the Philadelphia area, living across what is now eastern Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, and southern New York. Pennsylvania also is the land of the Susquehannock, Shawnee, Erie, and Iroquois, among others, whose lives and stories often are left out of founding narratives.

In addition to Neshaminy, the Sayre Area School District in far northern Pennsylvania continues to use the name Redskins, despite its broad identification as a slur and its removal from schools around the country.

School board president Pete Quattrini says people hold for and against opinions about the name, but as for district leaders, “our attention at this time is on getting our students and staff back to school.”

Together, the two schools educated nearly 3,100 students in the 2019-20 school year, according to PYC.

The challenge for activists, PYC noted, is that identifying disturbing names and mascots differs from removing them.

The choice of a Native mascot — and permitting the subsequent stereotypical, sports-fan behavior that often surrounds it — is a policy decision by each school board. That forces Native advocates and allies to work town by town, district by district, often facing alumni and local leaders who attach deep emotional meaning to their school names.

Fann-Boyle, a member of the American Indian Movement of Central Texas, said she and others are trying to work with Pennsylvania state agencies like the Education Department and Human Relations Commission to encourage overarching policies that protect all children from discrimination, including from depiction as mascots.

As recently as February, a University of Michigan study reaffirmed that the images cause psychological harm to Native people, including decreases in self-esteem, worth, and aspiration.

“Communities get stuck in the way things have been, the way things were, but that doesn’t make it right,” PYC’s Goodman said. “Now, in 2020, there’s a renewed sense of urgency in rejecting racism in all its forms. … Once we see the first 10 or 15 [schools] change, it will be a watershed moment for others.”