There are six public school districts in Halston Media’s coverage area.
Two of them, or one-third, have chosen the Indian to represent their athletic teams: Katonah-Lewisboro and Mahopac.
I’m not going to rehash the debate whether the term Indian, on its own, is pejorative. Hundreds of writers more skilled than myself have already tackled the subject, and their articles are available online. But there is no consensus. Some abhor it; some prefer it to Native American.
But knowing the climate of the world in which we live, I figured it was only a matter of time before one or both of these school districts came under pressure—both internally and externally—to change their identity.
Right on cue, the topic was broached by a Katonah-Lewisboro school board trustee at the board’s Sept. 19 meeting.
“To me,” said Terrence Chang, “the mascot should be the unifying force or symbol; one that brings us together that we all can be proud of as a community and as citizens and rally behind and celebrate. To me, the Indian is not that mascot. And I feel that the Indian is actually a very divisive symbol. And I don’t think that’s only my opinion. I think that’s reflected in the national and global conversation.”
Weeks later, Mahopac News published an op-ed from a resident who was a bit harsher in his critique of the school district’s continued use of the Indian, saying it only serves to amplify the hamlet’s racist reputation.
The Indian name, wrote Daniel Ehrenpreis, a 2012 graduate of Mahopac High School, “further emphasizes our community’s inability to eliminate racism. We need to unite together to end the racial discrimination scarring our community by removing a symbol that has held us back from healing for far too long.”
Before we go any further, I want to make sure this discussion is being appropriately framed. We’re not talking about changing “mascots.” We’re talking about changing the identity of a community.
I have no skin in the game. I did not grow up in Katonah, Lewisboro or Mahopac. I don’t know what it’s like to have my community’s identity tied to the Indian. But I grew up nearby in Yorktown. And if you told me our school was becoming the Wildcats instead of the Huskers, I’d probably protest.
It just feels wrong. Anything but the name you grew up with will.
So, if people come out to protest these name changes, it serves nobody well to assume their motivations are bigoted. They are fighting to keep their community’s identity.
But to some, that identity is problematic. The aforementioned Katonah-Lewisboro school board member, to reiterate, called the Indian a “divisive symbol.” It’s not something to be “proud of,” he added.
A few other district parents threw their support behind the name change at the Oct. 3 meeting, with one saying, “I just hope that by the time my children reach high school that it can be something that we can be really proud of and we can all rally behind it.”
They did not explain what they meant, but I suspect the racial makeup of these communities has something to do with it. Lewisboro is 95 percent white, Mahopac is 91 percent white and Katonah is 87 percent white.
Having mostly white players call themselves Indians probably makes some people cringe. But as has been written about before, the Indian identity was chosen to honor the settlers of these communities. Not to mock them or promote stereotypes, which neither Mahopac nor John Jay do.
Unlike some professional, college or high school sports teams, they don’t perform offensive chants or tomahawk chops; they don’t have offensive caricatures for their logos (they both use arrowheads); their identity is not a racial slur; and they don’t have physical Indian mascots.
From what I’ve witnessed, both Mahopac and Katonah-Lewisboro supporters are extremely proud of their identity and have honored their settlers in a respectful manner.
However, people who support the Indian name are swimming against a national tide. If they want to keep it, they must be ready to fight, and not just at the local level. State governments have taken steps to ban high schools from using any team name relating to an Indian tribe, person, custom or tradition.
Still, if you anonymously polled the Mahopac and Katonah-Lewisboro communities, I think many would vote to keep the Indian name. But publicly voicing that support takes a bit more conviction. With this topic being such a lightning rod for controversy, I suspect many supporters will just stay home.
(I have, however, read critiques of the Katonah-Lewisboro school board for raising the issue when it could be focusing on “more important” things, which is a textbook case of deflection. It’s also absurd as a premise. School boards are capable of reviewing more than one item at a time.)
Now that Katonah-Lewisboro has started down this road (no such process has begun in Mahopac), the school board has three options: 1) change the name, 2) keep the name, or 3) postpone a decision until people forget about it and move on (a surprisingly effective strategy, to be honest. People are easily distracted).
Whatever choice they make won’t be a popular one. And I don’t expect they’ll be in a hurry to draw the ire of their community. We might even see trustees play hot potato with administrators over whose decision it is to make.
If the schools settle on option No. 2 or No. 3, they’d only be kicking the can down the road. It seems inevitable that this issue will keep resurfacing until a change is made, as it has for decades.
Though this discussion is not new, the circumstances are. Prior school boards and administrations who chose to maintain status quo did not have higher powers breathing down their necks.
Ultimately, Mahopac and John Jay are not deciding whether to change their identities. They’re deciding whether to change it voluntarily now or wait for it be changed later by someone else, be it one, five or 10 years down the line.
Maybe it’s time we get used to the idea of rooting for the Mahopac Lakers or John Jay Wolves.
If you feel strongly about this issue one way or another, please send an email to email@example.com. I’d like to hear your thoughts.