hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires


News & Issues June 2021


Culture clash

Bitter debates, voter backlash follow efforts to rename sports teams



Neil Gifford, president of the Cambridge, N.Y., Board of Education, stands in the bleachers at the high school football field, with the Cambridge Indians team name and mascot displayed behind him. photo by Joan K. Lentini.


Contributing writer


When the rural Cambridge Central School District recalled its yearbook at the end of May – because a senior had listed Hitler’s “Mein Kampf” as his favorite book – the head of the local school board stressed the need to protect local families of diverse backgrounds.

Board of Education President Neil Gifford called the incident outrageous and deeply disturbing.
“These kinds of actions only further marginalize and harm the children and families in the district that have been telling us that they feel increasingly marginalized,” Gifford said in an e-mail. “It also speaks loudly to the need for implementing the diversity, equity and inclusion policy that we adopted earlier this year.”

How best to protect the diverse members of the student body has been on Gifford’s mind a lot this past school year, and not just because of the district’s new policy.

For months before the yearbook incident, the community had been caught up in a polarizing debate about whether to change the name and logo of the school sports teams, the Cambridge Indians.

That debate started last fall after Cambridge alumnus and Seneca Nation activist John Kane launched an online petition to retire the Indians moniker and logo, saying Native American mascots “are dehumanizing and promote a damaging racial stereotype of an extremely marginalized people.” Nearly 3,000 people have since signed the petition.

Although many in Cambridge agreed it was time to retire the Indians name, many others fiercely resisted the change. Lawn signs proclaiming “We are the Indians! Protect the Pride” sprang up around the district this spring, and last month, voters overwhelmingly elected two new school board members who had pledged to oppose the name change.

The debate has sometimes grown ugly and personal, Gifford said. One school board member resigned because of the hard feelings that had arisen. The tone grew so heated that the school board has hired outside mediators to help proponents and opponents of the name change talk with each other.

Gifford, who has served on the school board for seven years, said in an interview last month that no other debate on schooling has so divided the community during his tenure.
“Nothing that has risen to this level of animosity and anxiety in the community,” Gifford said. “Not even close.”

But the details and tone of the sports mascot debate aren’t unique to Cambridge. In Vermont, Rutland spent much of the current school year navigating a bitter dispute over changing the name of the Rutland Raiders. In the Berkshires, Pittsfield faced opposition as it abandoned a Native American sports mascot last summer, and similar conflicts have arisen in districts around the nation.


A movement gains momentum
Activists have been calling on communities and professional sports teams to stop using stereotypical images of Native Americans since 1968, but the public pressure for retiring such imagery has reached a tipping point in just the past few years.

In professional sports, the Washington, D.C., football team quit calling itself the Redskins last year, and the Cleveland Indians baseball team has pledged to retire its name at the end of the current season.

In 2019, Maine became the first state to ban the use of Native American names and imagery for sports mascots in all of its public schools. Most states, however, have left it to individual communities and local school boards to figure out how to proceed.

The website MascotDB.com, which provides a large, searchable database of some 50,000 mascot names in professional and non-professional sports, includes a separate search function of high school mascots based on Native American names and slang referring to Native Americans. Although the database is not completely up to date, it does list more than 180 schools with active Native American nicknames in Massachusetts, New York and Vermont.
In the local region, there are fewer than 10, ranging from the Glens Falls Indians to the Wahconah Regional Warriors in the Berkshires. And though some of these school systems have taken up the possibility of changing their teams’ names or imagery, others have not.
The Mechanicville school district in Saratoga County, for example, has opted to change the Native American imagery of its teams, but so far the district has opted to keep the Red Raiders name.

In Rutland, the school board voted 6-4 in October to retire its Raiders name and arrowhead logo. Since then, however, voters elected three new board members who had campaigned against the name change, and it’s possible they’ll form a bloc with some of the incumbents to reverse the change.

In the Berkshires, Pittsfield’s school committee voted last summer to end the use of the Braves name for Taconic High School teams.


Respecting diversity
For Gifford and several others on the Cambridge school board, the argument to retire the Indians name was compelling -- and not that new. Gifford said the board received “a lot of objective information, letters and requests directly from First Nation people across the country” urging it to change the name, including from the National Congress of American Indians, which is considered the most comprehensive association of tribal governments in the United States.
In addition, he said, key education leaders and psychological organizations have long warned that such mascots can have a detrimental effect on students of color, including Native American students.

In 2001, Richard Mills, then the state education commissioner, urged school boards across New York to stop using Native American mascots, saying they can “make the school environment seem less safe and supportive to some children, and may send an inappropriate message to children about what is or is not respectful behavior toward others.’’

There also has been a growing body of research examining whether exposure to Native American mascots could have a detrimental effect on the self-image of students of color. For example, a series of four studies in 2010 by researchers from the University of Arizona, Stanford University and the University of Michigan attempted to measure the effect of recognizable Native American mascots or icons like Pocahontas or Chief Wahoo.

The researchers found that students who were exposed to the stereotypical imagery before answering questionnaires scored lower in self-worth and being able to articulate future plans. This was true even if the students reported feeling positively about the imagery.



Opponents of a proposal to retire the Cambridge Indians team name and logo in Cambridge, N.Y., campaigned against the idea, and two opponents of the name change won handily in last month’s school board election. Fred Daley photo


Protecting a tradition
People in Cambridge who’ve opposed the name change have argued that the Indians name and logo actually honor Native American communities and ancestry -- and that removing the imagery would effectively erase those who lived in the region before European settlers arrived.

One of the most outspoken defenders of the Indians name has been Dillon Honyoust, a member of Onondaga Nation who was the top vote-getter in last month’s school board election. Honyoust, who runs a local tire store, did not respond to several requests for an interview for this report.
Honyoust organized an online petition with 1,800 signatures in support of retaining the Indians name, and he and his family also proposed a compromise that would retain the team name but create a new logo created by a Native American artist. He also called for the creation of a fund to help students gain more awareness of indigenous culture.

In a campaign video he posted on Facebook to launch his school board candidacy, Honyoust said the team name connected him to ancestors who came before him. He also said he worried that changing the team name would wipe out a link to Native American history.

“When you cancel, when you take away, what’s the solution?” he asked. “What’s the conclusion? It’s not to remember Native Americans.”

Kane, who hosts a podcast called “Let’s Talk Native,” says such arguments misinterpret history. In a recent podcast episode, he argued that Native American mascots themselves are a form of cultural erasure, because they cast aside the fact that the United States was created by conquering and displacing Native American communities. To have predominantly white communities appropriate Native American names and imagery is, on its face, offensive, he said.
“It’s the fact that you are going to take that identity for yourselves, and pretend that somehow, in American history, that Native people have been placed on a pedestal,” Kane said. “And we never were. We were buried in mass graves.”

Alarmed by the increasingly bitter tone of the name-change debate, the Cambridge school board opted this spring to hire a team of outside mediators to help guide a more constructive dialogue about the issue, which Gifford said may come to a vote this month.

If the board does vote in June, it will have at least one new member. In the May 18 election, voters backed Honyoust and David Shay Price, another candidate who supported keeping the Indians name, by a wide margin. Turnout was about three times higher than normal, Gifford said. Honyoust was sworn in the next day to fill a vacant seat, but Price won’t take his seat on the board until July, after the current school year ends.

In a statement posted on Facebook, Honyoust vowed to work with other members of the board toward reconciliation.

“By coming together with good hearts and open minds, we can help bridge the divide that has been hampering our community and school for months,” he said.


Toxic talk in Rutland
In Rutland, the public debate over retiring the Raiders name quickly turned ugly last fall. School board member Alison Notte reported to city police that she received a series of threatening text messages and emails from anonymous sources. One of the emails, which called her a “commie,” a Marxist, excrement and worse, directly voiced displeasure that the school board was considering changing the school team name.

After an initial 6-4 vote in October to move ahead with retiring the Raiders name and its arrowhead logo, the school board ultimately voted in February, again by a 6-4 margin, to change the name of the school sports teams to the Rutland Ravens.

The decision to retire the Raiders name aligns with the wishes of the Vermont Principals’ Association, which last year issued a statement declaring that “any mascot, nickname, symbol or logo that has marginalizing, racist or exclusionary elements should be replaced.”
But the dispute in Rutland may not be over. In March, three candidates who campaigned to change the name back to Raiders won school board seats, and Notte says they likely have the votes to reverse the name change.

Notte, who until recently was the school board chairwoman, said she has never seen such fierce debate over a local school issue. The only other local school issue that came close to sparking such strong feelings was the high school’s decision to fly a flag in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, but that debate didn’t last as long, she said.

“I think that more people could say that this affects them,” Notte said. “There are many people apparently that identify from their high school mascot of years gone by.”

Board members who had voted against the name change also reported that they faced public harassment and intimidation over the issue. Brittany Cavacas said she was accosted and spat upon outside a supermarket, and her father and fellow school commissioner Hurley Cavacas said he had been threatened and had contacted the state attorney general and secretary of state’s offices about the matter.

Last month, however, the Rutland Herald reported that its review of public records, public meetings and emails showed Hurley Cavacas, now the board chairman, had misstated or misrepresented his correspondence with state officials about the issue.

Brittany Cavacas declined an interview request for this story, saying only that her personal lawyer is handling the harassment matter -- and that she is still being harassed.

Asked about his daughter’s accusations of harassment, Hurley Cavacas said, “We’re just moving forward.”

Cavacas said he hopes to put together a committee to bring together the two opposing sides on the issue of the sports team name. Although he has voted against the name change, the new chairman said he now wants to seek clarity about the decision, including about whether the city of Rutland is being singled out by outside organizations for the Raiders name and whether the name is truly offensive to Native Americans.

“I need to hear information from the people it’s directly affecting, which would be those of Native American heritage, and I don’t believe I’ve heard from them, from a lot of them,” he said.
Notte said that although she believes the school board can work together on a variety of issues, she is less hopeful the board will be able to bring down the temperature of the name-change debate.

“There’s still the concern that people think that a majority of people have to agree that something’s offensive for it to be offensive to any given minority, which to me is insane,” she said. “Because they’re never going to have that support, which I think to me is a crux of this issue.”


Pittsfield’s debate
Not every local school board has faced such a strong backlash for deciding to move away from Native American mascots. In Pittsfield, there was a heated debate at first about whether to change the nickname of the sports teams of the district’s two high schools, but ultimately the school committee voted 5-1 to retire the Braves nickname of Taconic High School while continuing to study whether to retain the Generals name for Pittsfield High School’s sports teams.

James Massery, a Pittsfield resident who opposed the name change, said there hasn’t been much of an effort to reverse the change or unseat the officials who supported it. But these kinds of culturally divisive debates take a toll on a community, he added.

Both Massery and William Cameron, a school committee member who supported the name change, said in separate interviews that it might be better for the state to settle the issue rather than leaving it to individual communities to resolve. People who didn’t like the change could then direct their anger at the governor rather than their neighbors, Massery explained.

“I’d be upset with the state, but there wouldn’t be this argument within the community,” Massery said. “This wouldn’t divide the community. I don’t go to the grocery store with Charlie Baker.”
Cameron said the debate in Pittsfield broke down along familiar lines, with opponents saying the team names were intended to honor Native Americans.

“Their argument was, ‘It was meant to honor them, not insult them. If it insults them, well, they’re wrong,’” he said.

But the fact that many Native Americans find the names insulting is a reason to change, he added.

“What right do we have to say our alumni pride is more important than your personal insult?“ Cameron asked. “Times change, and I don’t think this is a change for the worse. It’s a change for the better.”

In Cambridge, Gifford said he also wishes New York’s lawmakers would take up the matter, rather than leaving school boards to sort through a culturally charged topic that can leave deep scars in local civic life.

“It has really torn this community apart and compromised the functionality of the district itself,” Gifford said. “I certainly hope we will find a path forward to heal and unite.”