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Amid Washington Redskins debate, two schools look back on own mascot changes

Keith Allison

While the debate continues between the Oneida Indian Nation and the Washington Redskins regarding the team's name and mascot, in upstate New York, several institutions faced similar decisions more than a decade ago and did change their names.

Christina Alexander was the president of the sophomore class at Sherburne-Earlville Central School in rural Chenango County when the student body decided to retire its Indian mascot, while leaving the team's name - the Marauders -- unchanged.

In the early 2000s, the state's education commissioner proposed removing all Native American mascots from public schools. At the time, the central New York region had the highest concentration in the state, with about 1 in 7 schools having a Native American mascot.

The commissioner's proposal didn't come to pass, but Sherburne-Earlville's students still took action.

"We decided to be proactive, because we had also heard that the state might just assign people different mascots," Alexander said. "It started off very high school centric. We were the people who were dealing with it, we were the people who were talking about it, and then it spread out into the community."

For about a year, the community held board meetings and debates on the issue, which occasionally included angry outbursts. By 2002, the Native American mascot, regalia and all, was replaced by a wolf.

"Making that change, just to a shift to something that was actually unifying, it wasn't a new war cry, it wasn't a new let's go get somebody else," Alexander said. "It was actually about self-strengthening."

About 11 miles away in Hamilton, and at about the same time, Colgate University was making similar changes by dropping the "Red" from their team name, the "Red Raiders."

Professor Michael Taylor teaches Native American studies and anthropology at Colgate. He says although a mascot and team name provide commonality for students and alumni, there is something else that every student shares.

"The generational connection or aspect of tradition is that they are still graduates of Colgate," Taylor said. "But whether as Red Raiders or Raiders, that's just a personal difference."

Taylor, who is Native American himself, says by opening the dialogue about the use of Native American mascots in society, more light can be shed on the problems facing Native people today.

"Native people become represented and are recognized as a contemporary people, a modern people, as people who have to -- along with the rest of America -- get up every day and do whatever for their day," Taylor said.

Taylor says mascots also portray Native Americans in a false and ahistorical light.

"They represent the past, they represent the present, and in some regard, they represent the future of these teams that use the names for the teams that they have represent them," Taylor said.

Taylor says if the Washington Redskins do change its mascot and name, it may provide an avenue to discuss other problems disproportionately affecting Native Americans, like diabetes and obesity.

In the case of the Washington Redskins, Taylor says the NFL's push to expand beyond the United States may play a pivotal role in whether the team's name and mascot is changed.

"The perception on this larger global world scale is that if this business, the National Football League, seeks to make itself a marketable commodity, and impact the global market, it would just make it a better opportunity for them to be able to do something about the controversy surrounding it," Taylor said.

NFL officials are meeting with the Oneida Indian Nation on Wednesday to discuss their desire to have the name and mascot removed.

Potential new names and logos are also cropping up for the Washington team. 99Designs, a crowdsourcing graphic design company, recently held a contest to create a new name and logo. Team names included the Renegades, the Warriors and the Redtails.

More than a decade after helping lead a mascot change in Sherburne, Christina Alexander says she wants to see the Redskins change their name, even with the years of tradition behind it.

"Just because something changes its name doesn't mean that it changes what it is," Alexander said. "To be honest, I think fans would be more upset if you changed the team's colors than if you changed its name. But if you think about it, why don't you ask Steelers fans if they'd rather give up the Steelers name or the Terrible Towel."