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MASCOTS: What's in a nickname?

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  • Robert V. Schmidt
    http://www.philly.com/mld/inquirer/news/local/10381208.htm?1c Posted on Fri, Dec. 10, 2004 What s in a nickname? By Rob Parent Inquirer Suburban Staff Sheila
    Message 1 of 1 , Dec 10, 2004

      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.

      Go Redskins.

      "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
      from Washington.

      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
      metropolitan area.

      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.' "
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