Sewanhaka awaits DOE ruling on Native American mascots

Sewanhaka awaits DOE ruling on Native American mascots
A Sewanhaka High School student dressed as an Indian, the school’s mascot, at their 2017 homecoming parade.(Photo courtesy of the Sewanhaka Central High School District)

Sewanhaka Superintendent James Grossane said at the Dec. 1 Board of Education meeting the district is waiting to receive regulations from the state Education Department before determining how to move forward with Sewanhaka High School’s mascot, the Indians. 

“This was a topic of great discussion at the county’s superintendent meeting last week and the advice we received and are following is we are waiting for the regulations,” Grossane said during his report. “In 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic, two petitions were created demanding the mascots for Sewanhaka and Manhasset, also an Indian, be changed.  the regulations will very clearly spell out what we need to do and what the procedure would be.”

The state DOE released memo Nov. 17 ordering school districts to stop using mascots, team names or imagery depicting Native Americans by the end of the 2022-2023 school year or risk losing state aid.

Sewanhaka High School, one of five high schools in the Sewanhaka Central High School District, is currently known as the Indians. 

“Those school districts that continue to utilize Native American team names, logos, and/or imagery without current approval from a recognized tribe must immediately come into compliance,” the November memo said. “Should they require guidance, districts may reach out to those districts that successfully retired their mascots or their local Board of Cooperative Education Services. The Department is developing regulations that will clarify school districts’ obligations in this respect.”

The superintendent said Thursday he believes the district will be required to form a committee on the matter and seek student input, among other things, before determining whether or not to change the name or seek to retain it through approval of one of the nine recognized Native American nations in the state. 

“Once we get those regulations, we will share those with the community and we will do as we are directed by the New York State Education Department,” Grossane said.

The memo in November came on the heels of a court case involving Cambridge Central School District, which voted to retire its “Indians” team name, logo and mascot in June 2021 before reversing their decision a month later after new board of education members took office. 

Albany County’s Supreme Court ruled that public schools violate the Dignity Act when using Native American mascots. 

“Thus, the court’s decision establishes that public school districts are prohibited from utilizing Native American mascots. Arguments that community members support the use of such imagery or that it is “respectful” to Native Americans are no longer tenable,” said Senior Deputy Commissioner James Baldwin in his memo. 

Native American mascots have long been a topic of discussion both locally and nationally. 

In 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic, two petitions were created demanding the Indian mascots for Sewanhaka and Manhasset be changed. 

Both school boards said at the time they would be evaluating the use of the symbols in the district.

Since 2020, the National Football League’s Washington Redskins renamed itself to the Washington Football Team before permanently deciding on the Washington Commanders, which was unveiled earlier this year. 

Major League Baseball’s Cleveland Indians also renamed themselves the Guardians, which took effect this year. 

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