“Woke” Culture Wins Against Westchester’s Insensitive Mascots

The “woke” culture is winning in Westchester County — at least as far as the sensitivities of Native Americans are concerned.

In November, the Katonah-Lewisboro School District jettisoned the Indian team mascot that had represented John Jay High School since the year it opened, 1956. Predictably, this did not go down easily.

The anti-mascot side lectured that the Indian symbol reinforced harmful racist stereotypes against indigenous people who were victims of government genocide. Traditionalists resentfully countered that the mascot celebrated the nobility of Native Americans and that doing away with it was political correctness run amok.

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Roughly 0.1% of Westchester’s population is Native American — and so the mascot debate was mainly between fairly affluent, not to mention well-educated, white people. School Superintendent Andrew Selesnick told me in an email that he had not been lobbied by any Native American organizations, but he listed numerous national leadership groups that over several decades have consistently and forcefully opposed the use of Indian mascots.

“That fact was influential to the decision,” he said.

As Selesnick acknowledged, the school-mascot issue has been kicked around for a long time; in the case of John Jay High School, it goes back 30 years. The board of education decided to revisit the matter in 2019, after hearing from parents, school employees, and members of the student government.

Statewide, a big push came in 2002, when then-state-education-commissioner Richard P. Mills issued a consciousness-raising memo to New York’s local school officials, urging them to dispose of Native American mascots because their use make a “school environment seem less safe and supportive…and may send an inappropriate message to children about what is or is not respectful behavior toward others.”

Conceding that there were “cherished traditions” and monetary costs involved, Mills said he was not ordering an “immediate and statewide halt” to Indian mascots. But a lot of school officials got the hint. The die was cast.

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“Traditionalists resentfully countered that the mascot celebrated the nobility of Native Americans and that doing away with it was political correctness run amok.”

Only a year after the Mills memo, Ossining retired its 73-year-old Indian. The school district came up with a series of silly replacement mascots — starting with the Riverhawks (a made-up species of bird), followed by the O’s (whatever that was), which in turn was replaced by The Pride, which is neither fowl nor vowel but an emotion and therefore the perfect choice for the self-esteem movement.

In 2014, Roosevelt High School in Yonkers added “Early College Studies” to its name and forever erased its Indian mascot and, interestingly, it seemed that hardly anybody noticed — including the local newspaper. The new mascot is a shark, which sounds cool and can offend no one other than sea turtles, seals, and boogie-boarders.

The Indian at John Jay High School was, well, the last of the Mohicans in Westchester but not in New York. Plenty of Indian mascots remain in the Empire State, e.g. the Canisteo-Greenwood Redskins in Steuben County, where the superintendent was practically run out of town some years back for trying to change the hearts and minds of a highly resistant citizenry.

I don’t doubt the sincerity of the contestants on either side of the mascot issue. But some of this is a little hard to swallow. Frankly, I fear too many locals don’t know a Sint Sink from a Lakota Sioux, and it shows up immediately in the depictions of mascots dressed in war bonnets and other “wild west” costumes. And for those who insist the John Jay mascot honored the memory of Chief Katonah, who sold a chunk of Westchester real estate to the white settlers, it might be instructive to know that the indigenous people of North America had no concept of private property in the first place — and that this by itself led to a lot of misunderstanding, bloodshed, and tears.

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On the other hand, it didn’t take long for a few of the anti-mascot folks to say, While we’re at it, let’s take this one step further, by getting rid of John Jay, too, because guess what? He owned slaves!

This is an excellent example of presentism, which means looking at history through the lense of supposedly superior modern-day values. Jay did own slaves. But he was also an abolitionist, as well as the nation’s first chief justice and a skilled diplomat who kept us out of another war with England.

Jay was one of the Founding Fathers, those much-maligned dead white men of the Enlightenment to whom we owe thanks for many things — including the freedom to complain all the time.

The opinions and beliefs expressed by Phil Reisman are his alone and do not necessarily reflect those of Westchester Magazine’s editors and publishers. Tell us what you think at edit@westchestermagazine.com

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