The State Education Department voted unanimously on April 18 to end the use of Native American mascots in schools — a decision that will impact Sewanhaka High School.
If the high school — known as the home of the Sewanhaka Indians — fails to comply with the state’s order by the end of the 2024-25 academic year, it could be considered in willful violation of the Dignity For All Students Act and face penalties including the removal of school officers and the withholding of state aid.
The ban on indigenous mascots will affect a total of 11 Long Island school districts.
“The Sewanhaka Central High School District will comply with any and all directives from the New York State Department of Education,” Sewanhaka superintendent James Grossane said. “With regard to its recent decision about mascots, the Board of Education will be convening soon to discuss the new directives and a process on moving forward. The district will continue to keep the community informed once a process is decided.”
An $86.6 million bond referendum was approved in 2014 to fund renovations within the Sewanhaka Central High School District. In 2015, a brand-new turf field was completed that reads “Sewanhaka Indians,” inscribed in the school’s purple, white and gold colors, with a Native American man’s head in the center.
According to the statewide ban, all indigenous imagery on school property, apparel, sports uniforms and fields would have to be eliminated.
“The department believes that the importance of prohibiting offensive or stereotypical (imagery) is the primary charge here and has provided ample time both in the past and under the current regulations for districts to enact change while having a minimal impact on budgeting,” Keshia Clukey, spokesperson for the State Education Department, said.
Board of Regents requirements
The state Board of Regents is in charge of setting education policies, as well as rules and regulations it enforces as law. Prior decisions of the commissioner and the Albany Supreme Court established that public schools are prohibited from using indigenous mascots.
In 2001, Richard Mills, the former commissioner of education, issued a memorandum mentioning that the use of Native American symbols or depictions as mascots can “become a barrier to building a safe and nurturing school community and improving academic achievement for all students.”
Mills then called for the removal of all Native American mascots in public schools as soon as possible.
Since then, the Board of Regents and the state education department have consistently opposed the use of Native American mascots and imagery in schools, Clukey said.
“The time is now to move away from these harmful images,” Clukey said. “School districts have had 22 years — since before their students were born — to consider the damaging implications of the use of these mascots and enact positive change.”
All schools will need to be reviewed on a case-by-case basis and the state education department will provide assistance to any school or district with questions.
Reactions to the ban
Similar to Sewanhaka’s school board, Brentwood High School officials reportedly agreed to change its mascot as well. Although it will be costly, they said they believe it is time to “do the right thing.”
However, others, such as Wantagh High School and the Massapequa School District, are challenging the Board of Regents’ decision.
Wantagh school officials said they are willing to change the imagery of their mascot, but want to retain their “Warrior” name. The Board of Regents has said the school cannot keep the name due to its indigenous ties.
Members of the Massapequa Board of Education sent out a letter expressing their frustrations with the Board of Regents, claiming that the Board of Regents is trying to “remove” the town’s rich history. The school board members said they are looking into legal counsel options.
Some Sewanhaka High School graduates said they were disappointed with the state’s decision, and added that the matter should have been handled differently.
“Alumni have a direct and strong connection to their past as Indians in a mostly respectful way, unlike how it has been abused in some less common situations like comical icons, but that is rare,” Robert Knobel, Sewanhaka High School class of 1970, said. “I believe the statewide mandate should have simply said the local Indian nation needs to request the changes to the schools and districts and have a process to dispute the requests.”
Josephine Smith, director of the Shinnecock Nation’s Cultural Resources Department, said Native American mascots are “highly insulting” to indigenous people, especially the use of stereotypical costumes, names and cartoonish imagery, which dehumanizes native people and traditions.
“Mascots of a people or culture is not an honoring,” Smith said. “Indigenous people are not things to bring good luck, are not fictional characters, are not to be used to represent your town, school, sport team, organization or business.”
Smith said the way non-native people can honor indigenous groups is by acknowledging and respecting them, their land and waters, as well as collaborating with native people in the area on a curriculum to properly educate students on indigenous history.
“We are a living people with living, evolving traditions — we are not your mascots,” Smith said. “With knowledge comes understanding, with understanding comes respect, with respect comes peace.”
Additional reporting by Michael Malaszczyk.