‘Redskin’ is a racial slur
I am writing to support the Cooperstown Central School Board’s decision to reopen the question of changing the sports teams’ nickname from the “Redskins.”
I personally believe that this nickname is a detriment to the school and its athletes for a variety of reasons. As the issue of history and heritage are used to support both sides of this argument, I think that it is time we review our community’s historical connection between Cooperstown and the native peoples of this region. We share a rich heritage, and there is much to be proud of in this regard. For hundreds of years, prior to the 18th century, Otsego Lake was a center of Native American life in the Northeast, with the Haudensaunee and Algonquin people using the Susquehanna River and lake as major routes of transportation that extended over many thousands of square miles.
We also know that the lake was an important hunting and fishing site for the native settlements in the Mohawk Valley. The evidence of these peoples’ lives is all around us; it is turned up every spring when local farmers plow their fields and discover arrowheads and pot shards, and it is in the very place names that define our community. Otsego, Susquehanna, Oneonta, and Council Rock are among the many place names that come down to us from our native forebears.
To the extent that we believe in the power of history and that we understand Cooperstown to be a place blessed in its heritage, we must also understand that there is a dark element to this history that makes the school’s use of the term “Redskins” as the team nickname particularly egregious. In the summer of 1779 the Clinton-Sullivan Campaign that had the primary objective of destroying the homes, villages and crops of the Iroquois people in order to drive them from their ancestral homes, was launched from the present site of Cooperstown. This campaign was one of the largest military operations waged in North America during the American Revolution and involved thousands of soldiers and hundreds of bateaux (wooden military boats) sailing down the Susquehanna and destroying every village, crop and orchard that they came across.
Historians estimate that about 50 towns and almost 1,000 homes were destroyed during this campaign. Though direct casualties of the native people were not recorded, it is known that by November of that year, 3,000 displaced refugees huddled at the gates and in the parade grounds of British Fort Niagara. These men, women and children arrived with just the clothing on their backs before the coldest winter of the 18th century. The fact that many survived was only due to the efforts of the British Rangers, who quickly constructed cabins for them and provided basic rations.
I believe that the Cooperstown Central School Board and all involved in planning this change consider this and the long history of the term “Redskin” as a racial slur. Do we really want our school identified with this when there are many other positive names that the students can be proud to call themselves and remember long after graduation?
Livermore is vice president for education
for the New York State Historical Association
CCS alumni shares
letter to BOE
This is a letter that I recently sent to the Cooperstown Board of Education:
Dear Board Members:
I was thrilled to learn you were reevaluating our school’s nickname. As a CCS alumni and Cooperstown local, I ask you to repair the damage caused by our school’s unfortunate nickname.
Calling ourselves the “Redskins” is harmful and hurtful. While many community members take pride in this nickname, the term has been and continues to be a source of shame and embarrassment for others, including myself.
Supporters of our nickname have raised many hollow arguments in the past. First, some have remarked that they personally know American Indians who support the use of Indian mascots and nicknames by educational institutions. Yet individuals cannot speak for a people. For instance, even if a few of my African-American friends supported changing our nickname to the “Blackies,” countless other African-Americans would rightfully take offense.
Other supporters say the term “Redskin” is steeped in respect of our local history, as evidenced by James Fenimore Cooper’s novels and our art museum’s collection of Indian “artifacts.” “The Last of the Mohicans” is a captivity narrative, a popular and sexy literary genre when it was written, portraying indigenous people as a dying breed. Far from a dying breed, many indigenous people, including our neighbors of the Onondaga Nation, have proven themselves resilient and strong. Understandably, many indigenous people resent museums portraying their recent ancestors’ belongings as novelties from an archaic past. Another nickname could highlight prouder moments of our local history.
Still others argue against changing our school nickname for the sake of tradition, since our nickname apparently dates from the mid-1920’s. While I love tradition and its ability to teach us who we are, I am also wary that tradition may sometimes stop us from becoming who we ought to be. Our nation has a tradition of racism, and dare I use the g-word, genocide. It’s best to let go of some traditions.
I am not alone in suggesting that our nickname is hurtful. The NAACP, the NYS Department of Education, the US Civil Rights Commission, and numerous other organizations and governmental bodies have advocated against the use of Indian symbols and mascots. The Society of Indian Psychologists believes that the use of Indians as symbols and mascots, however well-intentioned, is “incongruous with the philosophy espoused by many Americans as promoting inclusivity and diversity.”
The American Psychological Association called for the retirement of Indian mascots in schools. Former APA President Ronald F. Levant, is quoted on their website. “The use of American Indian mascots as symbols in schools and university athletic programs is particularly troubling because schools are places of learning. These mascots are teaching stereotypical, misleading and too often, insulting images of American Indians. These negative lessons are not just affecting American Indian students; they are sending the wrong message to all students.” Dr. Lisa Thomas, APA Committee on Ethnic and Minority Affairs, goes further. “We know from the literature that oppression, covert and overt racism, and perceived racism can have serious negative consequences for the mental health of American Indian and Alaska native people. The discontinued use of American Indian mascots is a gesture to show that this kind of racism toward and the disrespect of, all people in our country and in the larger global context, will not be tolerated.”
Our neighbor, the Onondaga Nation, opposes to use of Indian mascots, calling them defamatory. Kandice L. Watson, Director of Education & Cultural Outreach of the Oneida Nation explains that “painting faces and doing that tomahawk chop while chanting some nonsensical chant is ridiculous and I don’t know how this could be honorable to anyone. I’ve seen teams in the Northeast who send in an ‘Indian’ on a horse. Usually he is wearing nothing but a breach cloth and a headdress and is carrying a spear or something. Everything about this is wrong.” She continues, “I think the bottom line is this: if your mascot is truly honoring the local Indian Nation, let it be a completely accurate depiction, respectful of that tribe’s traditions and culture and done with that tribe’s consent. Otherwise, I don’t see how it can be defended.” Ms. Watson would likely be appalled by our use of the nickname “Redskin,” a term which fails to accurately and respectfully depict any local Indian Nation and which we use without consent.
Thank you again for tackling this issue. Whether or not you fully understand how the current nickname hurts me and others, I appreciate your attention to the issue, and the compassion and respect demonstrated by your actions.