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On Shelter Island, a debate is again brewing over the school nickname Indians

A campaign’s afoot on social media asking the Shelter Island Board of Education to get rid of the school’s sports teams name, the Indians.

A change.org petition, along with a Facebook page, is asking people to sign up to protest the name, which they say is disrespectful or racist. As of Friday afternoon, there were 1,750 signatories applauding the idea.

There is also another change.org petition page, with only 70 signatures as of Friday, asking people to sign to keep the name.

The issue has drawn strong reactions on social media, some serious, some derogatory. It’s not just the name, but also centers around the image of the Indian portrayed on the gymnasium floor, with some saying it has no relation to the eastern woodlands Indian tribes, but looks more like a Great Plains Indian.

‘Eliminate the stereotypes’

Started by Islander Lisa Kaasik, who mounted a similar campaign in 2013 when she was a student at the high school, the purpose for the name change, according to a statement by Ms. Kaasik, is because the word “invites the abuse of stereotypes that perpetuate the injustices inflicted on the Native people … We ask the Shelter Island School Board to promptly change the mascot and eliminate the stereotypes displayed around the school and on its website. This change is long overdue, and we must hold ourselves to a higher standard. This issue extends far beyond the largely homogenous Shelter Island community and is a legacy of racism that has haunted this country from its inception. We must prove to our children that we know better, we are better, and we are always capable of learning and growing.”

The movement has drawn support from the Shinnecock Nation, with Bryan Polite, the Council of Tribal Trustees’ chairman telling The Independent, “There are better ways to honor the traditions of the Shinnecock people or other Native Americas.” Mr. Polite added that the school “should honor the Native Americans by having a comprehensive curriculum centered around the local Native Tribes.”

‘Symbol of strength’

Opposition to the movement to change the name is equally passionate. Luke Lowell-Liszanckie, class of 2020 and a star varsity basketball player, started a change.org petition about a week ago to keep the name. As of Monday, there were about 100 signatures.

Mr. Lowell-Liszanckie, in his statement, said that “the Shelter Island School mascot is not racist, but far from it. If you have an issue with the name ‘Indians’ that is understandable, however the mascot should still remain as a Native American. By having an image of a Native American represent our school and its sports teams depicts a sense of strength. I view the Native Americans as a group of strong people …  All the horrors that they endured is a testimony to their strength as a people. By having an image of a Native American represent our school I believe we are honoring the Native Americans. Letting their fighting spirit reflect our own. That image painted on the gym floor is not an inaccurate racial stereotype. It is a symbol of strength and perseverance.”

Pro and con

Cindy Belt, the school’s volleyball coach and sportswriter for the Reporter, noted that her sister-in-law, Nancy Redeye, has Native American heritage, and when the issue surfaced seven years ago, she asked her opinion. “Nancy said, ‘This is not an honor. This is somebody taking what they have romanticized as an idea of American Indians,’” Ms. Belt recalled recently.

Ms. Belt noted that in her articles for the Reporter, she has never mentioned the team’s name. “Equating people with a mascot is wrong,” she said. “Most other mascots are animals.”

People who are proud of the teams’ name “feel they’re being called racists,” Ms. Belt said. “They think it’s finger pointing at them personally, when that’s not the issue, and shouldn’t be the issue.”

Island resident Judy Goodleaf Card said that Islanders should be proud of their teams’ name. She was disheartened that social media has become the venue to discuss a serious issue close to her heart.

“Facebook is a very bad place to have a discussion of this magnitude as it doesn’t allow for progressive and constructive conversation,” Ms. Card said. “People, on both sides of the issue, have been aggressive, nasty, and hurtful.”

She added that “as a registered Indian, I have always liked having an American Indian as an icon — not mascot — to represent our school and town.”

She, like many others, prefers the term “American Indian” to “Native American,” adding that anyone born in America “is technically a native American, but they are not American Indians.”

Ms. Card said she didn’t want to be misunderstood as speaking for all “Indian people. I fully respect and support those fighting for the change. I know they are coming from a place of compassion in a world full of hatred and racism. I will not stand against them in this issue. I will be sad to see the Indian disappear, but in the words of Chief Joseph, ‘I will fight no more forever.’”

A new era

There was widespread community debate in 2013 when a request for a change of name was first brought to the Shelter Island Board of Education. But no action was taken by the board to replace the Indian name, mascot or symbol that dominates center court of the school gym and is seen on T-shirts and hoodies around town.

The argument then pivoted to semantics, with members of the board noting that  “mascot” conjures up an image of someone jumping around in costume, and the word “icon” should be used.

But times have changed. Ms. Kaasik said, and now, “people are more instantly aware that something is wrong.”

Referring to the National Football League Washington franchise dropping the name Redskins, Ms. Kaasik, said, “it’s all over the news. It’s about learning to be more anti-racist, and how to address it in your community. Clearly this is an issue where people can take action close to home.”

Over the years, Native American names for sports teams have been changed, from Stanford University replacing “Indians” with “The Cardinal” to St. John’s University changing from “Redmen” to “The Red Storm.”

A state issue

The issue of team names was recently brought to the floor of the New York Senate. Senator Pete Harckham (D-South Salem) introduced legislation on July 14 that would require school districts “that are using logos, mascots and team names that are viewed as being racially polarizing to engage in community conversations and discussions in order to reach a shared consensus on the subject and a path forward.”

Sen. Harckham stated that his bill was sparked by some communities questioning the use of mascots and names referring to American Indians. There are more than a hundred school districts in the state using those names.

In 2001, New York’s education commissioner asked local school districts to consider abandoning the use of the names, but the state didn’t order districts to comply.

The issue will be front and center at the Shelter Island Board of Education’s next meeting scheduled for Aug. 17, when petitions on both sides will be presented and the issue debated.

“This is obviously a very hot topic on Shelter Island as indicated by how it’s playing out on social media,” said School Board President Kathleen Lynch. She added that board “welcomes the opportunity for all members of our community to come together and share their thoughts and opinions in a public venue. The school boardroom is the perfect place to host civil discourse. We are all neighbors and many of us friends, and it’s our hope that everyone will be able to feel heard and understood.”   

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