The New York State Education Department is instructing districts statewide to come into compliance with a ban on Native American mascots immediately. (via Wikimedia Commons)

Days before the Thanksgiving holiday, which many Indigenous people in the United States observe as a day of mourning, the New York State Education Department (NYSED) has circulated a statewide memo instructing all school districts to end their use of Native American “themed” sports mascots, team names, and logos, which perpetuate derogatory stereotypes of Native people.

NYSED has opposed the use of these mascots since 2001, when former Commissioner of Education Richard P. Mills called them a “barrier to building a safe and nurturing school community and improving academic achievement for all students.” Mills requested that boards of education “end the use of Native American mascots as soon as possible.”

Sports team names and mascots in the US have long made reference to Native American people in a reductive fashion, portraying them as inhuman and bellicose. Previously popular monikers like “Redskins” and “Savages” and logos of Native American chiefs have come under scrutiny for employing slurs and appropriating Indigenous culture to harmful ends.

While many districts have complied with Mills’s order since then — including Waterloo and Lyme Central just this past summer — others have stubbornly refused. Most notable among the holdouts is Cambridge Central School District in upstate New York, which has challenged the state in court in an attempt to retain its “Indian Warrior” mascot.

Commissioner Betty A. Rosa has remained insistent that such mascots be substituted with new ones, citing laws prohibiting schools from fostering a hostile environment that produces emotional harm and studies concluding that Native American mascots reinforce negative stereotypes.

“Schools are learning environments; students learn as much through observation of their surroundings as they do from direct instruction,” reads the November 17 memo from Senior Deputy Commissioner James N. Baldwin. “In addition to their legal obligations, boards of education that continue to utilize Native American mascots must reflect upon the message their
choices convey to students, parents, and their communities.”

Jasmine Liu is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from the San Francisco Bay Area, she studied anthropology and mathematics at Stanford University.