The board of education in Lancaster, New York voted unanimously Monday night to quit using “Redskins” as Lancaster High School’s nickname, making it the latest school to drop the name as the controversy around it and other Native American mascots continues to swirl nationwide.
The vote brought an end to a months-long “educational journey” that began in September and featured discussions with students, parents, and local Native American tribal leaders. In the end, the Buffalo suburb’s school board could “not deny that the word is a slur to Native Americans,” said board member Marie MacKay (via a local news live stream), and it voted to change it over the objections of a many who gathered in a school cafeteria for the board meeting.
“The name of a school mascot should not be offensive to anyone,” said Patrick Uhteg, the board’s vice president who referenced without naming Washington’s NFL team, which uses the same name and has been embroiled in a years-long controversy of its own.
“We are a school district, not a billionaire-run football team,” Uhteg said. As such, the board had an obligation to “set an example” for students and the community.
The Lancaster decision was not without controversy. Board president Kenneth Graber said that he and his fellow members had received threats that they would face campaigns to unseat them in upcoming elections, and at times during the hearing, chants from supporters nearly drowned out members’ speeches. As in other debates, supporters of the name have cited Lancaster’s tradition and its intent to honor Native Americans in arguing to keep the name.
“They do not feel honored,” Graber said of many members of the local Native American community, who he said had been involved in the discussion over the school’s mascot perhaps for the first time. And he assured the crowd that “everyone here is only acting in the best interests of all our students,” rather than capitulating to outside interests or being swayed by the national debate.
The view of what constituted the best interests of students, though, had been swayed by recent events. Three nearby school districts with significant Native American populations decided in the last two weeks to cancel scheduled lacrosse matches with Lancaster over the name, and multiple members cited those decisions as having an immediate effect on Lancaster students, limiting athletic opportunities and putting them at the center of a divisive community debate.
Some opponents of the name had argued at previous hearings that the name, which has existed for 68 years, was about tradition and honor, but Graber stressed that Lancaster’s tradition extended beyond what it called its sports teams. The achievements of students, athletes, teachers, and faculty “did not happen because of a word or a symbol,” he said.
“That is what we are proud of, our accomplishments as a school and community, not as a mascot,” MacKay echoed.
The board did not announce a replacement nickname.
Leaders of the Change The Mascot campaign, an effort of the Oneida Indian Nation and the National Congress of American Indians against the Washington name, applauded the decision in a statement. Oneida, based in central New York, helped launch the campaign after another school near its central New York base changed its name two years ago.
“We offer our sincere congratulations to the Lancaster Central School District Board for their admirable choice,” said Oneida representative Ray Halbritter and NCAI executive director Jaqueline Pata. “Tonight the people entrusted to teach our children stood up for what is right. They listened to all sides of the debate and arrived at a fair decision that demonstrates tolerance and respect, and embodies the values that we as Americans hold dear. “
School districts in at least seven other states have also reconsidered the use of “Redskins” and other Native American mascots this year. In California, for instance, state representatives have introduced legislation that if adopted would force several schools that use “Redskins” as their mascot to change. Proponents of that law have spent weeks gathering letters of support for that legislation, and similar fights are ongoing in Oregon. In Wisconsin, where Gov. Scott Walker (R) last year signed a law making it harder to change such names, one school recently voted to continue using the moniker.
Washington’s NFL team, meanwhile, continues to oppose efforts against its name. The team and owner Daniel Snyder, who has vowed “NEVER” to change it, are currently involved in a lawsuit attempting to save the team’s federal trademark protections, six of which the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office’s Trademark Trial and Appeals Board invalidated in June.