NY Native American nicknames: Schools rethink mascots, branding

President Armstrong has been outspoken about the issue of offensive sports team mascots, logos, and names. Several school districts around the state are being encouraged by their alumni, parents, or teachers to make changes

By Andrew Legare, James Johnson & Kevin Stevens | Aug 24, 2020 | Reprinted from

WATKINS GLEN (TNS) — When entering the gymnasium at Watkins Glen High School’s field house, fans are greeted by a mural that reads “Welcome to the Seneca Nation.”

Watkins Glen takes great pride in being the Senecas.

Students have been taught about the tribe’s history, a statue of a Seneca Indian has long been a presence at the school and students paint their faces with nods to their mascot’s Native American lineage.

The gym has been a fun gathering place over the years as fans cheer on the school’s highly successful boys and girls basketball teams.

”I think it’s something we all take great pride in and we just want to make the community proud,” said 2020 Watkins Glen graduate Isaac McIlroy, an all-state basketball player who is headed to Keuka College. “It’s part of our history around here. I think it’s something where we all love to rep the name of the Senecas from Watkins Glen.”

Of course, the gymnasium at Watkins Glen High School is not the real Seneca Nation. In fact, 2018 census numbers showed only 31 people out of nearly 18,000 throughout Schuyler County were of American Indian or Alaska Native descent.

As socially conscious causes have come to the forefront, Watkins Glen is now reconsidering whether it should remain “Seneca Nation,” joining several other schools across New York state in examining the use of Native American mascots or imagery.

More than 50 high schools throughout the New York State Public High School Athletic Association still have nicknames with direct ties to Native Americans or their cultures. That number exceeds 80 if you add in schools with Warriors mascots, some of which have Native American imagery on logos or uniforms. There are 31 public schools with the Indians nickname.

”If you would have asked me two months ago, I wouldn’t have thought it was as big a deal until I’m actually hearing some of these things from Native populations,” said Watkins Glen athletic director Rodney Weeden.

”A teacher did a great presentation that I sat in on and it makes you think whether we could be perpetuating something. So it made me change my mind. I shouldn’t be a white guy making a decision on this. I want to hear from Native American culture on some of this stuff and I think the (Board of Education) does too.”

The rise of the Black Lives Matter movement has heightened the focus on racism. But if there was a tipping point to the use of Native American mascots, it was the decision by Washington’s NFL franchise to drop the Redskins nickname.


School administrators, by and large, are at least listening to people’s concerns.

• On Aug. 12, the Nyack School Board in Rockland County retired the Indians’ nickname, five weeks after an alumnus introduced a petition to make the change.

• In July, the school board of Peru Central School, in Clinton County, voted to retire its use of the Indians nickname. A task force was created to come up with a new one.

• The Katonah-Lewisboro school board retired the Indians mascot for John Jay High School in Cross River, in Westchester County, and is replacing it with Wolves.

• In Chautauqua County, the Jamestown Justice Coalition started an online petition to change Jamestown High School’s Red Raiders name, and as of mid-July it had more than 800 signatures in support.

• Avon High School in Livingston County is examining its Braves mascot. tSuperintendent Ryan Pacatte said the term “Brave” represents positivity, courage and honor, but added the school needs to be responsive to the current climate.

Elsewhere, there are ongoing campaigns and petitions to change nicknames at Roy C. Ketcham High School (Indians) in Wappingers Falls, Dutchess County, Mahopac (Indians), Putnam County, and East Islip (Redmen and Lady Redmen) and Brentwood (Indians) on Long Island.

At least two high schools in the state still have Redskins as their mascot: Canisteo-Greenwood in Steuben County and Oriskany in Oneida County. Both have addressed their mascots since the NFL’s Washington team dropped its nickname.


G. Peter Jemison, of the Heron Clan of Seneca Nation, is manager at Ganondagan State Historic Site in Victor. He said the NFL Washington team’s decision was based on what was prudent financially and not on moral correctness.

“I’m pleased the decision was made, but it’s important to acknowledge what brought it to that point,” he said, noting the pressure coming from FedEx, which committed to pay more than $200 million for the naming rights to the team’s stadium.

Seneca Nation President Rickey Armstrong Sr. also expressed satisfaction that the NFL franchise dropped the offensive nickname.

New York state’s Iroquois Confederacy dates back hundreds of years and includes six nations of Native American people: Cayuga, Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Seneca and Tuscarora. Counties, towns and lakes across New York carry names connecting them with those nations. Several school districts have direct or indirect ties to Native Americans, which partly explains why so many schools have adopted them as mascots.


Maybe no other school district in the state has a stronger awareness of the legacy of a Native American nation in its region than Salamanca.

It is the only city entirely on indigenous territory, according to the school district’s superintendent, Robert Breidenstein.

About 1,100 of the 1,400 students in the district reside on the Allegany territory of the Seneca Nation. Thirty-eight percent of students in the district are described as Native American. Add families with multiple family heritages, and that percentage rises to 42%.

“All recorded history I’m aware of, we have always been identified as the Salamanca Warriors,” Breidenstein said. “We have a logo and a brand that is deeply connected with our ancestry in the community.”

There is symbolism in the smallest details of the Salamanca district logo, including the direction the Warrior faces, he said.

The logo, designed by Seneca artist Carson Waterman, is depicted to face west — as the Senecas were the “Keepers of the Western Door” of the Iroquois Confederation.

Canandaigua Academy has called its sports teams the Braves since at least the 1940s. Members of the school district’s board of education approached local Native American representatives around 2002 in an effort to change any incorrect or stereotypical imagery used by its teams.

Their message to Jemison? “We don’t know your stories. We aren’t informed, and we should be,” Jemison recalled.

Jemison helped implement Seneca education in the curriculum that has fourth-graders spending a day at Ganondagan Historical Site. In addition, all new hires in the district are required to visit the site for education.

The Canandaigua City School District uses a Wampum belt as the official logo with a Seneca spear enclosed within it along with the block CA letters.

“I applaud the efforts to remove the stereotypes,” Jemison said. “That’s a step in the right direction. I call it an American mythology which does not want to deal with the truth. It’s a different truth, it’s a painful memory …

“I’ve talked with adults who, when they come to understand it, when they learned the history, they’re shocked. How did they get to be that age and not know what happened? It’s a big issue and it’s about more than the name of a high school team. There’s a lot more to this.”