Inside one school district’s 20-year journey to choose a new mascot.
April 26, 2021
Clare Finkelman spent years trying to explain why the "Indians" mascot of Nyack Public Schools was problematic.
“It is not an honor and it denies actual living Natives in this community our humanity,” Finkelman, an alumna who is affiliated with the Miꞌkmaq, Mexica, and Taíno tribes, said during a July 28 Nyack school board meeting. “Every Native organization—over 145 of them—and living Native people in this community have spoken out against the practice of appropriating the idea of some 'fantasy Indians' as mascots for our sports teams.”
Finkelman and dozens of other community members from the Rockland County suburb, located 20 miles north of New York City, spoke during a series of special-called school board meetings, most of them urging district leaders to retire the mascot, public records show. The board scheduled the meetings after another Nyack alumna, Leah Brand, posted a petition to Facebook last July, imploring leaders to change the mascot name. In the petition, Brand argued that the district “cannot possibly promote tolerance and keep the ‘Indian’ name at the same time.”
Nearly 3,000 Nyack alumni, parents, students, and community members signed on in agreement.
The national conversation around racist sports team mascots is not new but has gained momentum in recent years as part of a nationwide reckoning with racial injustice, spurring many schools and professional sports teams to rebrand. After seeing the news about the Washington Football Team dropping its former name, Brand decided it was time to take action.
The Indians mascot “totally erased the history of violence that colonizers had done when they got here,” said Brand, who is completing a master’s program in education at Smith College. “It felt important to me as somebody who has to teach this history to children.”
This wasn’t the first time the Nyack district’s mascot was at the center of an emotionally charged discussion. In 2001, the New York State Education Department issued a memo urging public school superintendents and board presidents to “end the use of Native American mascots as soon as practical.” At the time, the Nyack Indians mascot depicted a side profile of a man with weathered features, his long hair adorned with two feathers.
In 2003, after much community debate, the Nyack school board reached a compromise: Change the mascot’s visual logo but keep the Indians name. The revised logo featured a capital “N” with “Indians” written over it in small script. It was a difficult decision to compromise, but the community was not fully on board with making the change, said Michael Mark, who has served on the school board since 1998 and is its current president. Mark said he was in favor of eliminating the mascot entirely.
“My perspective has not changed since 2003,” he said.
It’s a different story for the Nyack community today. Sentiments about the mascot have shifted there nearly two decades later, as the district has sharpened its focus on equity work. This shift made it possible for the district to choose a new mascot last year.
Melanie Rock, a parent of Nyack students whose family shares ties with the Lenape Nation, said in her testimony during the July school board meeting that the Indians mascot has been a sensitive topic in her family. “It's generated a lot of necessary and useful conversations around race, but at the end of the day, it has certainly been a source of shame for us.”
The community can do better, Nyack High School sophomore Daniel Dolinsky said. “We should not be among those that not only demonize Native Americans, but we marginalize them by diminishing their culture into a team name.”
Last summer, parents, students, and alumni overwhelmingly supported retiring the Indians name. Those conversations weren’t easy. Many Nyack alumni still feel strongly about the mascot and its ties to tradition, claiming the name honors the region’s local Indigenous peoples. Representatives from the region’s tribes disagree.
“We’re people. We’re not effigies or sidekicks,” said Steven Burton, a tribal member and commissioner of Indian affairs of New Jersey who represents the Ramapough Lenape Nation.
Several tribes have claimed what is now the Nyack region as part of their ancestral homelands for centuries, including the Ramapough Lenape, Hackensack, Munsee, Pompton, and Tappan Nations. The Lenape were among many tribes forced to relocate to the region at the invitation of the Hackensacks after Dutch settlers encroached on their original homelands, now Staten Island.
Most people aren’t aware of the history they are standing in, Burton said. “If you want to honor us, come to a powwow. Talk to us. Learn our history.”
“We’re people. We’re not effigies or sidekicks.”
‘It Is Not an Honor’
Many professional sports teams and schools began adopting Native mascots in the early 1900s. Now more than 2,000 U.S. preK-12 schools, colleges, and universities that are outside of the Bureau of Indian Education have mascots that depict Indigenous peoples and symbols. Since the 1960s, Indigenous groups including the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) have been leading the effort to end the use of these mascots in schools.
As a resolution passed by NCAI’s membership in 2005 explains, “the use of ‘Native American’ sports mascots, logos, or symbols perpetuates stereotypes of American Indians that are very harmful. The ‘warrior savage’ myth has plagued this country’s relationships with the Indian people, as it reinforces the racist view that Indians are uncivilized and uneducated and it has been used to justify policies of forced assimilation and destruction of Indian culture.”
Native mascots are part of a long history of white settler colonialism upon which the United States was founded, a system that functions to erase the existence of Indigenous peoples and replace them with caricatures, said James Courage Singer, an assistant professor of sociology and ethnic studies at Salt Lake Community College and a member of the Navajo Nation. Singer has also advocated for the removal of race-based mascots in schools.
Native mascots give non-Native students the freedom to “play Indian” during school sporting events with fake props, costumes, and mocking pageantry—a practice that not only causes Native students to feel invisible and unsafe but has also been shown to cause psychological harm. At the time when many schools began implementing these mascots, Native children were separated from their families and forced to assimilate in Indian boarding schools where they were punished for practicing their culture or speaking their language.
“It was really ironic because those Indians couldn't be Indian. And yet the white Americans in high schools were taking upon themselves the name Indian and changing it,” Singer said. “Natives, if they were to speak up during that time, could be met with violence.”
An ‘Awesome Responsibility’
After the Nyack school board voted to retire the Indians name in August 2020—17 years after eliminating the Native imagery associated with the logo—board members directed Nyack High School Athletic Director Joe Sigillo to lead the process of choosing the district’s new mascot name and logo, with the goal of reaching a decision by the end of 2020. They gave him three guiding principles: The new mascot must be aligned with the district’s focus on equity and inclusion; it should be a symbol that elicits pride; and the process must involve student input.
Sigillo described his role as an “awesome responsibility.” He formed a committee of more than 20 people, including alumni, current staff members, coaches, administrators, and students. Over several virtual meetings, the group brainstormed traits they felt the new mascot should embody, such as strength, confidence, and respect. Committee members also solicited potential mascot names from the community.
Then, after the committee weighed community input to whittle the list of potential mascots, Sigillo hired a designer to create logos for the top three contenders: Spartans, River Hawks, and RedHawks.
“We felt that would be important for students to see the type of game-day experience they might be able to have to see how something can look potentially on a gym floor or a field or on a sweatshirt,” he said.
Students played an instrumental role in selecting a new mascot.
Students on the committee presented updates to the school board as they moved through the process. In the end, middle and high school students picked a new mascot with local significance: The RedHawks. The birds often fly over the football field and roost on top of Hook Mountain, which is a few miles north of the high school.
Incorporating student voices was the most important part of the process, said Daniel Cephus, a senior who served on the committee and plays varsity football and track. “At the end of the day, the current students and the upcoming students are the ones who are going to be representing [the mascot].”
Rebranding with a new mascot will be expensive—likely six figures, according to Superintendent James Montesano.
The new mascot will be phased in over several years, Sigillo said, working within the athletic department’s planned annual budget. The department has found some ways to reduce expenses. For example, Sigillo had the vendor make RedHawks patches that could be sewn over the old logo on existing uniforms for one-fifth of what it would cost to order new shirts for the boys’ lacrosse team.
Sigillo is moving quickly to rebrand a few high-priority items with the most visual impact. There’s now a bold new RedHawks mural painted on the gym floor. The baseball field will soon have new windscreens. He hopes to have a RedHawks costume ready to go this fall. There are still a lot of things that will need to be updated over time. The “Welcome to Nyack” sign outside of the high school still reads “Home of the Indians.” The old “N” logo with “Indians” written on it is prevalent on the high school sports fields and around campus.
Even so, having the new mascot logo in a few prominent places has made the transition easier, said Laila Bermudez, captain of the girls’ softball, basketball, and soccer teams and mascot committee member. “This is something that I will always have. I can come back here 20 years from now and see RedHawks everywhere and students wearing RedHawks shirts, and say, wow, I was a part of that.”
Helping to usher in a new mascot feels historic, said Megan Gregor, a senior who is captain of the girls’ varsity basketball and track teams and also served on the mascot committee. “We're the first to represent this new name, the first to put on that jersey, and the first to come off that court finishing our season as RedHawks.”
Change Is Worth It
Brand, who started the petition last summer to change the name of Nyack’s mascot, is still amazed by the response to her post and how quickly the school board and district moved to make the change. The community had been discussing the issue for nearly two decades. She felt compelled to take action as an ally.
"As a privileged white person putting my name on [the petition], the risk I was taking was worth it. Which I know would not be the case for everyone who chooses to do this."
Some of those who chose to speak up on social media about changing the mascot name were bullied in the comments section, including students. “Adults can be absolutely terrible to young people who have realized that their voices have power, even though they're still young,” Brand said.
But the students Brand has connected with don’t regret what they posted and neither does she. People are always going to have strong opinions, she said. “[Speaking out] is worth it if you want to make a change.”
Eliminating racist school mascots is an important step, but it’s just the first step and education must be ongoing, said Burton, the representative from the region's Ramapough Lenape Nation. Burton hopes educators will go beyond traditional history books, which often tell a one-sided, incomplete story, and seek perspectives of those with the most proximate knowledge.
"Learn more about our history. Speak to a local Native person,” he said.
“We're here, living all around you. We're not hard to find."
Find resources for starting the conversation about eliminating racist mascots with school stakeholders, navigating mascot redesign, rebranding execution, and more. Join TFA's Native Alliance on May 5th for a panel discussion on eliminating racist mascots.
Together, we will help change the narrative in pursuit of inclusive and equitable education for all children.