Shelter Island will decide fate of Indians nickname this month

The debate surrounding the Shelter Island School’s team name of the Indians came to the fore at its Board of Education meeting Monday night. The floor was opened to speakers following the rest of the agenda, and Board President Kathleen Lynch made clear that no time limit would be imposed.

School alumna Lisa Kaasik, who has spearheaded the drive against the name, announced that the petition to change it had garnered over 2,100 signatures. Henry Binder and Emma Gallagher, both 2020 graduates, spoke in favor of the change, as did 2009 graduate Mia DiOrio, who is now a teacher at the school.

Ms. DiOrio pointed out that of 11 school districts on Long Island with Native American mascots, eight (including Shelter Island) are considering changing. She also pointed to a bill before the N.Y. State Legislature that would cut funding to schools that did not change those names.

The pro-change speakers submitted statements from Native American leaders, including Bryan Polite, chairman of the Council of Tribal Trustees from the Shinnecock Nation, who was quoted as saying “Native Americans do not ask to be honored with mascots.” A more appropriate recognition would be the introduction of a comprehensive curriculum centered around the local Indigenous tribes, he added.

Ahterahme Lawrence, another alumna, spoke “in solidarity with the Native American people, as a Black woman” in a time of changing awareness of racism. She added “dismantling stereotypes has to go hand in hand with education. We don’t have to wait for it to be mandated.”

The speakers who argued for keeping the name drew mainly on their own experiences attending the school in earlier times. They evoked a sense of pride they had felt and never considered the Indians name to be anything but respectful. One of those speakers, Dave Gurney, called for a curriculum to educate students about the local history and native American culture, even as he asked that the name be kept.

Sherry Cavasini, Shelter Island Class of 1976, said “I’ve been known as a pit bull, but now I’m a proud Indian. We represented Indians with pride and never mocked them. Chief Pogatticut — for whom our yearbook is named — sat on a rock near where I live and watched the sun rise every morning.”

A Lakota speaker from the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota, Eric LaPointe, spoke from his personal history as a great-great grandson of Chief Crazy Horse. The painting of a Native American on the school gymnasium’s floor, he said, appears more like a Lakota than the local Manhansett tribes. The “war bonnet” adorned with feathers in the picture is misunderstood also. “Every feather is a story,” he said, that a person amasses during his life. “You only wear it when you’ve earned it,” he said, a way for elders to show they deserve respect.

Mr. LaPointe leavened his arguments against the name with humor. “Imagine if our school in South Dakota named their team the Redbud Caucasians,” he said. “How silly would that sound?”

Among those suggesting new names, the leading candidates appear to be Ospreys, Fishhawks or Islanders. Although the debate has at times grown heated, especially on social media, the speakers maintained a respectful tone.

“I couldn’t be more impressed with our ability to have a community conversation,” said Ms. Lynch. The decision on changing the name will be made at the board’s next meeting, Aug. 31.