At least a dozen school districts on Long Island could be forced to remove Native American mascots and imagery, after a vote by the Board of Regents to ban such images passed. NewsdayTV's Steve Langford reports.  Credit: Kendall Rodriguez; Morgan Campbell

The state Board of Regents’ vote on Tuesday to ban the use of Native American mascots, team names and logos in public schools has sparked confusion among some Long Island administrators — and defiance among others.

The ban, which could affect about a dozen Long Island school districts, was unanimously approved in Albany by the 17-person Board of Regents. Districts will have until the end of the 2024-25 school year to remove Native American references from uniforms, scoreboards, fields and buildings on school property.

Districts that do not comply will be deemed in violation of the Dignity For All Students Act and risk being denied state aid, according to the state Education Department. School officials in those districts also will be at risk of losing their jobs if they fail to comply.

Roger Tilles represents Long Island on the Board of Regents, which oversees the state Education Department. Tilles said that, when it comes to schools that fall within a perceived gray area, the commissioner of education will make a decision on a “case-by-case basis” with input from an Indigenous Mascot Advisory Group composed of tribal leaders.

LI teams that may face change:

  • Manhasset, Brentwood and Sewanhaka (Indians)
  • Comsewogue, Wyandanch, Amityville and Wantagh (Warriors)
  • East Islip (Redmen)
  • Massapequa (Chiefs)
  • Syosset (Braves)
  • Sachem East and Sachem North (Flaming Arrows)
  • Connetquot and Half Hallow Hills East (Thunderbirds)
  • Center Moriches, Freeport and Plainedge (Red Devils)

"They’re going to have to see the context of it," Tilles said. "That’s going to be the important thing."

Schools can keep a team name if it is endorsed by a federally recognized tribe. There is one federally recognized tribe on Long Island, the Shinnecock, which supports the ban. 

An April 6 Regents item cites Braves and Warriors as only acceptable to keep if they have not historically been associated with indigenous imagery. The item also said it would no longer allow team names such as Indians. The Education Department will also prohibit the use of any "name, symbol or image that depicts or refers to Indigenous persons, tribes, nations, individuals, customs, symbols, or traditions, including actual or stereotypical aspects of Indigenous cultures." 

Bob Lowry, deputy director for advocacy, research and communications for the state council of school superintendents, said he had hoped for more clarity as soon as the vote was official.

“There are districts that have questions,” he said. “Warriors is an obvious one. Braves could be another. And in some cases, school boards may be holding out hope that somehow their nickname may be permissible and may have deferred taking any steps until that becomes clear. We were all waiting for the regulations to be adopted and I would caution superintendents that the regulations by themselves don’t provide much clarity. ... We haven’t questioned the substance of what the department is trying to do, but we do hear frustrations from school officials about the process.”

A source within the Education Department said additional guidance would be forthcoming, adding that “the adopted mascot regulations require that any team names, logos, or other associated imagery connected with Indigenous peoples or Nations are vestiges of practices contrary to the requirements of the proposed regulations … and would need to change." Team names and mascots are exempt if the school has never historically tied them to indigenous peoples or nations, the source said. 

Confusion and resistance

There are more than a dozen Long Island schools likely to be affected: the Manhasset, Brentwood and Sewanhaka Indians; the Comsewogue, Wyandanch, Amityville and Wantagh Warriors; East Islip Redmen; Massapequa Chiefs; Syosset Braves; and the Sachem East and Sachem North Flaming Arrows. Other schools that might have to make a change include the Connetquot and Half Hallow Hills East Thunderbirds and the Center Moriches, Freeport and Plainedge Red Devils.

Hours after the vote, Wantagh Superintendent John McNamara said the district hoped to keep the team name but would phase out their Indian head mascot.

“They've alluded that there will be more specific guidelines forthcoming and we're trying to keep it in perspective,” McNamara told Newsday. “We certainly understand which Native American logos that they're looking to remove. We feel we can rebrand the Warrior nickname and engage with the community to come up with new imagery around those changes. The definition of a Warrior is not specific to the Native American Indians. It's a generic term that's used widely. We can successfully rebrand it."

Tilles said he did not think it was likely schools could keep the Warriors name and change the imagery if the name had been historically tied to an indigenous symbol.

Sewanhaka said via a statement that it was awaiting further guidance, adding it planned to “move forward” with required changes when they receive needed clarification.

Massapequa’s Board of Education said in a statement that the Board of Regents “is overextending its reach and removing our local control,” and that the name honors the town’s native history.

“We have heard from many members of our community upset by this decision, and we stand beside you,” the Board of Education wrote in a statement. “We are Massapequa and we will not sit idly by while an unelected group of officials tries to remove our history. We are in the process of reviewing the decision and investigating all options with legal counsel.”

A costly process

The process is unlikely to be a cheap one.

The cost of the changes could exceed $400,000 per district, according to Pat Pizzarelli, the executive director of Section VIII, the governing body of interscholastic sports in Nassau County. Districts are expected to pay for the necessary changes but can petition the state for aid for any project that exceeds $10,000. The aid will be granted at the discretion of the commissioner of education, who can also grant a time extension to schools that show "good cause." 

Manhasset discussed the issue in a February Board of Education meeting, with board President Patricia Aitken saying that, as a higher-income district, it does not expect to receive significant building aid from the state to offset the costs of changing turf fields and other things branded with the Indians logo. 

In the Regents item, the Education Department noted that schools had 20 years to phase out imagery, beginning in 2001, when it was first recommended that districts do so.

"The [Education] Department believes that the importance of prohibiting offensive or stereotypical imagery outweighs any attendant costs," it said. "[M]ost of these expenses could have been avoided by phasing out team names, mascots, or logos decades ago." 

In that item, state Education Department Deputy Commissioner Angelique Johnson-Dingle said the department planned to draft and release further guidance on what names will be prohibited in partnership with "educators and Indigenous Nations." The item did not say when those guidelines would be released.

An Indigenous Mascot Advisory Group, comprised of tribal leaders, has "advised and continues to advise, the Department in making determinations regarding actual or proposed team names, logos or mascots," the item said. It also rejected the premise that the names honor indigenous people. 

"It's long overdue," said Tela Troge, a lawyer and representative for the Shinnecock Indian Nation. As a federally recognized tribe, the Shinnecock may provide exemptions to schools wishing to keep their mascots, but she did not anticipate any such action. 

The American Psychological Association and the New York Association of School Psychologists support the ban. Indigenous mascots create "lowered self-esteem, lowered opinion of future personal achievement, lowered opinion of community worth," the New York Association of School Psychologists said in a statement.

Some local athletes have spoken out against the ban.

"There’s a lot of pride behind the name Redmen at our school," said East Islip junior Kailyn Bloch, who is on the bowling team. "It’s in all of our gear for sports and I’m proud to wear it so I don’t want [the name] to go away.”

Added Wantagh junior wrestler Anthony Clem: "Our Warriors nickname is inspiring in that it makes us work harder to achieve our goals. To me the name Warriors represents bravery and strength and that in itself is a great motivator. We are proud to be Wantagh Warriors. We definitely don't want them to change our name."

Logos with things such as feathers will also be scrutinized.

"While there is nothing inherently offensive about a feather, such images take on different meaning when used by school districts ... that have a history of utilizing stereotypical names and imagery," the regents item read. "The Department does not anticipate that any team names, logos or mascots that contain vestiges of prohibited team names, logos or mascots will be considered acceptable."

Additionally, public schools will prohibit school officers and employees from promoting indigenous names, logos or mascots when on school property or at school functions. Originally, that prohibition extended to all people on school property or at school events, but the April addition said that this may not be enforceable (this will not extend to school employees who are members of a tribal nation). 

Schools, however, will not have to destroy old trophies, photographs or banners, since "the intent of the regulation is not to pretend that Indigenous mascots were never used but to eliminate their use going forward," the item said. "Harmful as they may be, the use of Indigenous mascots, like the forced relocation of Native American tribes, is a historical fact that must be acknowledged."

With Carissa Kellman and Gregg Sarra

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