Indian mascot change appears to have little support
In his 31 years at Indian River High School, Principal Mark Steele said he has never heard complaints about the school’s Indian mascot. But there’s a first time for everything.
District parent Lloyd Elling addressed the Indian River School District Board of Education on June 19 to propose a mascot change for IR School District.
“The Indian is the only race we portray as a mascot” and it promotes racism and historical inaccuracy, Elling said, suggesting that the district instead use a dolphin or other representation of the “water world” of Delmarva Peninsula as the mascot.
Elling recommended either changing mascots or actuating the historical Indian. He questioned how much education students receive on the American Indian or local Nanticoke or Lenni Lenape tribes.
Steele said schools must teach to state standards and prepare students for testing, and education standards would need to change for schools to add extra heritage education.
“I would like for it to stop being pretend, for it to become actualized, or to let it go,” Elling told the Coastal Point.
Elling said he had approached individual board members and Steele about the issue last winter, with few results, so he made a public presentation at the school board meeting June 19.
He said he hopes to motivate the district “to look at themselves, look at our mascot and to make some changes.”
The district, IRHS, Selbyville Middle School and three elementary schools use the Indian mascot, while northern schools that feed into Sussex Central High School use the Golden Knight as their mascot.
“The things that we talk about here, about being an IR Indian — that stands for strong character, integrity and respect,” Steele said. “They’re directly aligned to what our mascot is. … We don’t just put it out there.”
Steele said he would, however, not appreciate it if the Indian was used in a cartoonish way. But he isn’t the only one who doesn’t find that there’s a real problem as things stand.
“We have basically taken the position that we are not offended,” said Herman Robbins, chief of the Nanticoke Indian Tribe, which is based in Millsboro. “We have a good working relationship with the school district. We have not had issue until this gentleman came along.”
If further protests or a lawsuit should begin, the Nanticoke Indian Association would not take part, said Robbins. The Nanticoke Indian Association has met with Elling, but Robbins said they take more offence at other names and mascots referencing Native Americans, such as the Red Devils.
Most person-based mascots in Delaware are knights, Vikings, raiders and warriors. The only other American Indian mascot appears to be the Redskins of Conrad Schools of Science in Wilmington, part of the Red Clay Consolidated School District.
“What bothered me is there’s no depth of connection to supporting actuality. It appears to be very pretend,” said Elling of the mascot representation at football games, “people running around with Indian feathers and whooping… I’m blaming the system that does not have it as authentic as it possibly can be.”
Elling said the most powerful statement on the issue will come from American Indians who actually witness the IR mascot in action, “whether it’s the local people who have some expertise in it, or a national office that represents many tribes and nations.”
“I’ve never really seen [the IR mascot]. I do plan on going to one of their games this fall to see how it interacts,” admitted Robbins, adding that his decision will depend on the mascot’s routine and the cheerleaders’ rhymes. “If we see it and found it offensive, we could contact the district.”
Robbins said he is aware the mascot is popular, and he said tribe members who work in the district are not offended. A former Nanticoke Chief even sent three children to IRHS by school choice, and Steele said that gentleman had no problem.
If the IRSD did remove the Indian mascot, Robbins said he would not be offended, although he said, “I would hope this is a decision made by the school district and the residents in the area.”
Between discussions on the Internet, at alumni meetings and between neighbors, there appears to be little support — and even some disdain — for the notion of a mascot change. Elling said he knows the issue is unpopular but he feels it’s a moral issue, citing the National Congress of American Indians’ involvement in removing the Indian stereotype from all logos.
Elling himself is of European decent, but his wife was born in Colombia and recently discovered she has genetic roots from the “First People” — the Canadian term for American Indians. Their child is an IR student.
The Indian mascot was actually chosen by students at the new Indian River High School in the late 1960s, when the district was being established, said Steele.
The school board makes all decisions regarding district mascots and school colors. The Delaware Interscholastic Athletic Association has no control over mascots, so Elling said he may approach the Delaware Board of Education if the IRSD does not offer support — something he said is likely. The issue may even require legislation, Elling said.
Elling cited the Oregon State Board of Education’s May 17 decision to remove Native American-themed mascots from all of its schools — a move that was endorsed by the National Indian Education Association. At least 15 schools there must change their logos by 2017 or risk losing school funding.
The last time parents took major issue with policies of the school district, it escalated into a lawsuit, and the school board lost the ability to initiate public prayer as the result of court findings.
“In my business, you’re always cognizant of that [risk],” said Steele. “The prayer issue — you had court precedent. I don’t think there is that case here at all.”
In his preliminary research, Steele said he found little legal support for mandating such changes, saying court rulings and appeals have usually ended in the institution’s favor.
In 2009, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear a case in which a group of American Indians wanted the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office to cease protection of the Washington Redskins football team logo because it is considered racially offensive. They originally won the case but lost the appeal on a technicality. Thus, the Redskins endure.
In contrast, the Seminole tribe officially sanctions Florida State University’s use of the Seminole mascot and image.
“That’s probably something we should do,” said Steele. “Maybe in this situation, if we’re the Indians, look at the famous chiefs, put them up with what they did… Certainly there’s nothing wrong with that.”