Time to retire Indian team names?

In wake of Washington Redskins’ name change, schools should examine the issue, too

The Washington Redskins announced last week that they will no longer be called the Redskins moving forward, as many in the country have been confronting controversial historical symbols in recent months. Should local high schools consider their own usage of stereotypical caricatures? (RYAN LAWRENCE/South Jersey Sports Weekly)

Twenty-six years ago, St. John’s University, a private Catholic college in New York City, announced its athletic department’s nickname was changing from Redmen to Red Storm, following years of complaints from American Indian groups about what they felt was a slur on their heritage.

Ten years later, in 2004, Syracuse University made a similar change. Although it was credited to Nike during a rebranding of the university’s athletic programs and uniforms, the result was that Syracuse ditched Orangemen for Orange.

It’s taken quite a bit longer for professional sports teams to become hip to change, but a move toward evolving past what many consider offensive stereotypes took one giant leap when the Washington Redskins announced this week the team would change its name and drop its logo. Earlier this month, officials from the Cleveland Indians had kick-started the process of considering a name change, too.

What about local high schools?

Indian-themed team names are popular throughout South Jersey, most notably in the Lenape Regional High School District, where all four high schools are named after American Indian groups. Native American  signage is also visible at every school website in the Monroe Township School District, home of the Braves of Williamstown High School. 

The Redskins’ monumental move comes as the country confronts  controversial historical symbols, such as statues and names (everything from Mrs. Butterworth and Uncle Ben’s committing to change to the Burlington County Freeholders announcing last week they will replace the title “freeholders” with “commissioners”).

So is the Monroe Township School District ready for a rebranding? Are the Lenape Indians, Cherokee Chiefs or Shawnee Renegades going to find themselves with new names in the near future?

It’s difficult to say. 

When contacted by Sun Newspapers, some coaches at the schools declined comment or had been instructed not to. But it’s difficult to ignore an issue that has taken off in recent months.

Monroe Township Interim Superintendent Thomas A. Coleman was asked via email if the district has had recent conversations about team nicknames and signage.

“The Monroe Township School District has not received any complaints or concerns expressed regarding the appropriateness of the Williamstown High School team names or the logos associated with such,” Coleman responded.

Meanwhile, conversations are ongoing within the Lenape Regional High School District, but movement has been slowed due to COVID-19, according to Superintendent Carol  L. Birnbom. The schools have moved toward using school lettering (The “C” for Cherokee on a hat, uniform top, or helmet, for example) over Indian signage, Birnbohm wrote in a statement to Sun Newspapers.  

“Over the course of time, the mascots used in our district have evolved through deliberate processes involving many stakeholders, including representatives of Native American tribal leadership, to ensure they reflect respectful depictions of Native Americans,” Birnbohm’s statement said.

“While we believe our circumstances are very distinguishable from the issues involving the Washington Redskins franchise, we recognize the ongoing importance of maintaining dynamic review processes for all facets of the district,” the superintendent added. “By way of example, several years ago, the district transitioned to using just the capital letters L, S and C on school websites and athletic uniforms.  

“Perhaps most importantly, for the past two years board of education committees have been involved in discussions to once again review the names and related considerations,” Birnbohm continued. “Unfortunately, the majority of the activities planned this year as part of that specific review process were derailed by the pandemic this spring.

“When our district returns to normal operations, we will resume our review process, ensuring that we involve as many community members and other stakeholders in order to make the most balanced and appropriate decisions we can.”

Williamstown High School (Braves) and Shawnee High School (Renegades) are two of at least a half dozen high schools in South Jersey that have Indian-themed team names. (MIKE MONOSTRA/South Jersey Sports Weekly)

Listening to the community is crucial and, perhaps, the avenue that may lead to a responsible decision. Half measures, however, are not satisfactory.

Stereotypical Native American caricatures are still present throughout South Jersey schools, whether on official websites, scoreboards, photo backdrops, or in the form of large, barely-clothed, feather headdress-wearing Indians painted onto the walls of gymnasiums. Until those are all scrubbed, literally, the issue will persist.

While Indian nicknames were surely never intended to offend, it’s worth reexamining whether the logos and imagery are honoring a people or if they’re instead perpetrating an inaccurate, stereotypical caricature. It goes without saying that it would be wise to err on the side of not promoting something that may be interpreted as racist. 

When schools are able to hold these review processes, pandemic or not, they may want to continue listening to the voices from Indigenous peoples.

“Now that the Washington football team is changing, it’s a new day, a new game,” Donna Fann-Boyle told NBC10 last week. 

For the last decade, Fann-Boyle, who is part Choctaw and part Cherokee, has been an activist for the name change at Neshaminy High School in Pennsylvania, whose teams are the Redskins.

“I’ve had a lot of community members and even school board members say, ‘Well when the Washington team changes their name, then we’ll talk about changing ours … If it’s OK for the capital of our country to use a slur, then it’s OK for a school to have it,’” Fann-Boyle said in the TV interview. “But the problem with that is the Washington football team is a private (company). The schools are a place (where) you’re educating kids that these stereotypes and this type of a racism is OK. So it’s very important for schools, too.”