For generations, John Jay High School teams have proudly carried their Indian iconography into athletic competition. So Andrew Selesnick, the superintendent of Katonah-Lewisboro schools, knows that even a discussion of scrapping the increasingly controversial symbol will likely be emotional and potentially divisive. Still, he sees a potential benefit for today’s students as the school board, yet again, considers that flashpoint issue.
Yes, it will be “a challenge,” Selesnick told Board of Education members who had abruptly tossed him that hot potato two weeks ago. But the experience, he continued, is “also a great opportunity for our students to see that an adult community—which will include all of the students, I hope—can tackle a challenge like this in...collegial and respectful ways.”
In this forthcoming clash, however, two sides with diametrically different views seem certain to meet. Opponents of the Native American mascot see it as a racist, divisive and demeaning symbol. Its supporters point to decades of school tradition and what they deem a proud celebration of this area’s abundant Indian history and heritage.
Trustee Terrence Cheng put the charged issue into play at the board’s Sept. 19 meeting.
“The mascot should be the unifying force or symbol,” he said, “the one that brings us together, that we all can be proud of as a community,” he said. “To me, the Indian is not that mascot.”
His fellow trustees, including board President Marjorie Schiff, appeared to agree, expressing varying degrees of support. Schiff herself stopped short of immediately endorsing a ban, but said, in part, “I do think it’s hard to square our mascot...with our commitment to inclusivity.”
Saying of the Native American displays, “I certainly support the notion that it’s something we should be thinking about,” she called for “a process” to do that.
But in apparent acknowledgement that times are changing, a number of board members clearly agreed with trustee Scott Posner’s observation, “If you were to pick a mascot [today], I don’t think that anyone would say, ‘OK, it’s going to be the Indian.’ ”
In a probable preview of the uncertain road ahead, he also warned, “I don’t think it’s universally felt within our community that we need to be changing the mascot.”
Popular opinion, of course, can vary with the times. Take 1989. That’s when a student-dominated Campus Congress voted by a 2-1 margin to expel Chief Katonah as the school’s mascot. But three decades later, the 17th century tribal leader continues to reign, a seemingly indelible symbol of the Katonah-Lewisboro Central School District.
Nevertheless, Julia Hadlock, the board’s vice president, calls the mascot issue something “we should evaluate and work toward changing.”
“I’ve been following it on a national level,” she told the board, referring to headlines that suggest a growing uneasiness in this country with an array of ethnic and other symbols.
In May, Maine became the nation’s first state to outlaw the use of Native American caricatures in public schools. School boards in Wisconsin are expected to vote in January on a similar measure. Meanwhile, individual school boards in a number of states have either moved to less controversial symbolism or are considering it.
In addition, Hadlock noted, a number of New York schools are asking the state Board of Education to ban Native American mascots or any use of the word Indian.
“We are an inclusive and welcoming environment,” she said. So John Jay’s display of an Indian mascot “just seems very out of alignment with that. I think we can do better, and I’d love to see us do that proactively rather than react to some legislation that’s being handed down.”
Observing developments elsewhere, trustee Elizabeth Gereghty said of the mascot, “I would hate to think that our school district would be forced to change it because we didn’t [do it ourselves] for some reason. I think it’s pretty clear where the Native American community stands on this.”
Trustee Rory Burke, saying he “would be supportive of considering a different mascot,” asked whether responsibility for such a change lies with the elected board or the district’s professional administrators.
Selesnick said later that it sounded “like it’s the will of the board” that he should develop a process in which a decision can be made on the mascot.
“It will be important,” he underscored, “that we think about it with our students in mind and with an educational process in mind.”
For Selesnick, the superintendent since 2015, and most of the board, including Schiff, this is familiar terrain. When the issue came up two years ago, students voted overwhelmingly to retain “The Indians” as John Jay’s nickname, along with its associated arrowheads, depictions of Native Americans and fans who style themselves “The Tribe.”
The vote, 550-399, in December 2017 followed expressions of concern about the mascot by the high school’s representative body, the Campus Congress.
Almost 30 years earlier, when the parents of today’s John Jay students were themselves finding their way through high school, the Campus Congress had addressed the issue. A representative 54-member body, the congress—with 36 students as well as faculty members and other adult employees—urged elimination of the Indian mascot, 33-17.
But the three decades separating that vote from the school board’s discussion a fortnight ago have witnessed little change in the mascot realm.
“The Native American head painted on the gym floor was...swapped for an arrowhead,” two John Jay graduates pointed out ahead of the 2017 vote, “but remains in at least two locations on the front of a scorekeepers’ table.”
Madeleine O’Neill and Sarah Nusbaum, members of the Class of 2009, were beseeching current students to end the district’s display of Native American symbols.
In a letter published in The Journal News, they wrote, “As alumnae, we feel shame at our former perpetuation of a mascot that is widely and rightfully regarded as racist.”
Not surprisingly, supporters of the school’s revered iconography—and they are legion as well as vocal—have a far different perspective. Far from being a bigoted derogation of Native Americans, they insist, Chief Katonah stands as an abiding salute to the earliest settlers of these lands. Exuberant fans may cheer “The Indians” but they have adopted neither the offensive chants nor tomahawk chops popularized by teams like baseball’s Atlanta Braves.
Still, the young women persisted. “We are writing,” they said, “to ask John Jay to look honestly at the culture of the student community...to take a stand against racism and bullying, and to teach students that “prioritizing a tradition at the expense of a race of people is unacceptable.”
Almost immediately, another alum—Bryan Fumagalli, John Jay 2009—took issue with that position, responding to the newspaper. “To move in a truly progressive fashion into the future,” he wrote, “we must learn from history, not erase it. In that spirit, I think that we need to keep the Indian mascot. It is our tradition; it unites generations of John Jay students and represents the history of the area.”
Rather than expunge the symbol, he suggested the school embrace it as a teaching tool.
“I propose that, moving forward, the administration devote at least one full school day each school year to learning about our shared Native American history,” Fumagalli said.
Heartfelt passion clearly imbues partisans on both sides of the debate. But Selesnick, the school superintendent plotting a path through a minefield, believes that a civilized discussion in these turbulent times would represent success.
“There’s actually not a lot of modeling in our country at the moment around passionate disagreement, handled respectfully and in welcoming and thoughtful ways,” he told the board at the Sept. 19 meeting. “But from what I’ve seen, if there’s any community that can handle it and is up to the challenges, this is one.”