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Redskins nickname is debated in Lancaster

Native American leaders and educators had a frank dialogue Wednesday with Lancaster school officials, sending them a strong message that use of the district’s Redskins nickname and mascot is offensive, racist and needs to go.

The roundtable discussion among four Native Americans, School Board members and school administrators remained civil, but words were not minced and the district was clearly told that such a mascot promotes stereotyping and has no place in an educational environment.

“Of all the words that could be used to describe us, ‘Redskin’ is the worst,” said John Kane, talk show host for the First Voices Indigenous Radio Network. “I can tell you as a native person, it is not appropriate. We represent the offended party.”

Kane and other Native Americans instead pushed for the district, which has a less than 1 percent Native American population, to abandon its Redskins ties and become a partner in change in a dilemma that is facing many districts nationwide.

“We have something to offer other than the color of our skin to hang on your doors,” he said. “We have a deep, rich history.”

Donald A. Grinde Jr., a University at Buffalo professor of transitional studies, said his son who attends school in a neighboring district was pleased to learn he would not be running in track this season against Lancaster, since he found the Redskins mascot and name upsetting.

A student-driven initiative forced the Cooperstown School District to change its mascot recently. Some colleges also have followed suit.

Since last summer, the district has been grappling with the issue, researching it and opening it up for communitywide debate as it weighs what to do about the nearly 70-year-old tradition in Lancaster that many still support and embrace, and others detest.

“It’s not just a simple issue of name or mascot. It’s much broader than that,” School Board President Kenneth E. Graber said. “We have to make a decision for the Lancaster School District, and not just on a whim.”

The situation in Lancaster, as it has in districts across the country, is playing out at the same time as a debate about the nickname of the National Football League’s Washington Redskins.

The district has made subtle changes, already distancing itself from the spotlight of having a Redskins name and mascot. The Redskins mascot was held away from sporting events last fall. School-issued athletic uniforms in recent years have been ordered without the Redskins name, and the new football scoreboard does not bear a mascot reference.

But supporters, including former School Board members Brenda J. Christopher and Joseph L. Maciejewski, have actively led a push to keep the Redskins tradition alive – citing it as a source of community identity, pride and spirit. Critics find it extremely racist and say it’s time for the district to abandon the Redskins name and embrace the other positive initiatives the district has going for itself and its students.

Christopher and Maciejewski stayed for most of Wednesday’s work session. Public comment was not allowed. Former Superintendent Edward J. Myszka and Patrick P. Farruggio, president of the Lancaster Redskins Booster Club, also attended.

At one point, Kane referenced the 1970s television character, Archie Bunker, and how he took shots at various topics, including Native Americans. Calling Bunker a “buffoon,” Kane said: “Those of you who are so entrenched that (Redskins) has to be OK, that’s Archie Bunker.”

“We aren’t a significant number, but we matter,” Kane said. “How is the R-word different from the N-word? It isn’t.”

“In this day and age, it’s not a celebratory term,” said Hilary N. Weaver, associate dean for academic affairs at UB and co-director of the Immigrant and Refugee Research Institute. “You’re a school district, and it’s important to look at what you’re teaching. … I don’t think racism has a place in an educational institution.”

Weaver called the district’s mascot “racist” and “wrong.” “I think this is an opportunity to step up and say, ‘No, we will teach our youth differently,’ ” she said. “Human beings matter. Dignity matters. Social injustice matters.”

Many others agreed.

“It’s dehumanizing to all of us,” said Al Parker, an educator and cultural resource specialist. “Education statewide and nationally is insufficient. That’s why this attitude exists.”

School Board member Marie F. MacKay said she grew up in Liverpool, where her school mascot was the Warriors. “This is a hard decision for this community,” MacKay said.

“We need to do what is right for everybody. We need to be educated in regard to what’s right and we need to come into this situation with an open mind.”

The board met for more than two hours with Native American leaders Wednesday, drawing a crowd of about 50 people. A community forum is planned for early March on the topic.