MASCOTS: What's in a nickname?
Posted on Fri, Dec. 10, 2004
What's in a nickname?
By Rob Parent
Inquirer Suburban Staff
Sheila Murphy remembers the way it was 30 years ago, when as a young
teacher she sat amid the pomp and circumstance of Neshaminy High football,
cheering as the school mascot - a student in full-feathered headdress and
Indian costume - whooped it up on the field.
"I didn't think anything about it," said Murphy, a longtime coach and
teacher and now director of athletics at Neshaminy. "The whole area was
home to Indians at one time. But, certainly, we understand how that name
can be denigrating to certain groups of Native Americans."
Neshaminy's sports teams began using the nickname Redskins with the
school's inception more than 50 years ago. It will be on display tomorrow
on players' helmets when Neshaminy plays for the PIAA Class AAAA state
championship against Pittsburgh Central Catholic, though in a modernized
form - the word Skins, in script type, surrounded by tiny arrowheads.
Of course, the nickname is not unique to the Bucks County school. In an NFL
game Sunday, the Eagles will play a slightly better-known group of Redskins
Nor is it unique that a school district would draw its formal name from
that of an Indian tribe. For instance, the Lenape, Shawnee, Cherokee and
Seneca, like the Neshaminy, have high schools in their name, in South
Jersey's Lenape Regional School District.
Still, of the approximate two dozen high schools in Southeastern
Pennsylvania and southern New Jersey that use Native American teams
nicknames and mascots, Neshaminy is the only one calling its teams
"Redskins." And that alarms some in the Middletown Township community.
Last month, the school newspaper published student-authored
point/counterpoint columns arguing whether the nickname should be changed.
Three years earlier, the same paper endorsed scrapping the nickname.
When Murphy began teaching at the school in 1971, some dictionaries
referred to "redskin" as merely another name for "an American Indian."
But, said Tara Gould, 33, a Neshaminy High teacher, "I looked 'redskin' up
on dictionary.com [and] it referred to it as: 'noun-offensive slang.' "
For some, the word is not just offensive. It represents one of the darkest
periods in the country's history.
As Jonathan B. Hook, Ph.D., a Cherokee and president of the American Indian
Resource Center wrote in an editorial on www.allarm.org., the Web site of
The Alliance Against Racial Mascots: " 'Redskin' is believed to have
originated with the practice of placing a bounty on Indian body parts such
as heads, scalps, and skins. So, bringing in a 'redskin' literally meant
the death of an Indian."
Some Neshaminy student journalists endorsed severing the connection to that
legend in an editorial that appeared in the April 20, 2001, Playwickian. In
part, they wrote that students were cheering an idol of "ethnic cleansing."
"It could be assumed that the Neshaminy Redskins [nickname] was developed
for our school out of respect for the Native-American culture," the
editorial read. "It is time for pride to be pushed aside... The
exploitation of the Native Americans' pain should not be accepted, even if
it is allowed."
That simple yet powerful statement by Neshaminy students is now required
reading for a course at Villanova University on the treatment of Native
Americans and slang names in our culture, Gould says proudly.
But it did not alter more than a half-century of Neshaminy tradition.
"I think we went through that [mascot name controversy] about every other
year," said Harry Franks, 86, Neshaminy's football coach from 1951 to '59.
"But we saw it as a tradition and we had a good, solid program. So we were
going to keep it."
Though it has been about 20 years since the regular practice of a student
dressed in Hollywood-like "Indian" regalia was discontinued, use of the
mascot's moniker has been revived as a controversy within the school.
"It's been discussed at the administrative level and informally discussed
among the school board members," said Sandra Costanzo, Neshaminy's
administrative assistant to the superintendent of schools. "When both the
students and the administration debated the issue, there was never a clear
consensus. The opinions were almost split down the middle. But might we
revisit it in the future? Perhaps."
Native American groups have been battling the practice in court for years,
with the NFL's Redskins a primary target.
This year, California came close to becoming the first state to ban
Redskins nicknames at public schools. The legislation, sponsored in part by
ALLARM, survived the state assembly only to be vetoed by Gov. Arnold
Bensalem resident Cyenh Witmer, 50, a mother of three and acting chief of
the Eagle Clan, an inter-tribal cultural association based in Bucks County,
agreed with Schwarzenegger.
"Native Americans have been trying for years to get rid of names like
Neshaminy and Ridley [the Green Raiders] use," said Witmer, a full-blooded
Lenape (Delaware) and Chinook. "To me, it's, 'Who cares?' They'll get
around to changing the names."
Witmer said there are about 300 people of Native American extraction living
in Bucks County, which she said is the most of any county in the
Of the estimated 3,100 schools nationwide that have had Native American
slang terms (Redskins, Indians, Braves, Warriors, Seminoles, etc.) as
nicknames, about 600 have changed.
Where there wasn't change there is sometimes protest. In 2002, Native
American students at the University of Northern Colorado formed a rec
league basketball team, calling themselves "Native Pride" and their team
the "Fighting Whites" - their satiric response to nearby Eaton High and its
"Fightin' Reds" teams.
Said Eaton High teacher Tom Troder then: "It is the same as the N-word for
African-Americans, the same as the S-word for Hispanics and the same as the
G-word for Asians."
But just how divisive is the issue?
According to the University of Pennsylvania's National Annenberg Election
Survey, a poll conducted from October 2003 to September 2004 showed only 9
percent of 768 Native Americans - and 13 percent of the college graduates
among those polled - found the NFL Redskins name offensive.
Witmer gives every indication she would be with the majority in such a
survey. But her stance resonates with stinging pride.
"We were the first Holocaust, when you think about it," said the Ridley
High graduate, who was born on the Penobscot Reservation in Maine. "I've
lived my whole life with demeaning [names]. So I pick my battles.
"If that school wants to call itself the Redskins, it's OK by me... . I'm
proud of my culture and heritage."
But at Neshaminy, the consensus is, well, there is none when it comes to
resolving the decades-old Redskins debate.
"The word is derogatory," said Neshaminy junior Chris Campellone. "If we
were called the Neshaminy Honkies, people would be against that."
Countered senior Melissa Garber, "I don't think it's derogatory at all.
It's hailing the Redskins."
And when Gould had her student writers pen their point/counterpoint essays
in this year's Nov. 19 Playwickian? "Some people think I'm using [the
newspaper] as a platform for my opinions," said Gould. "But I never even
thought about this until the students brought it up. They said it was
offensive. I said, 'You know what? You're right.' "