New York investigates use of Native American mascots

Thursday, July 16, 1998

The New York State Education Department has launched an official investigation to determine whether schools' use of Native American mascots is inappropriate.

But First Amendment activists say the use of such mascots is protected by free-speech rights.

“The whole process of censoring words that could have a negative impact on someone is contrary to the whole idea of free speech,” said Frank J. Arrigo, a California-based attorney. Arrigo unsuccessfully challenged a Los Angeles school district policy prohibiting a local high school's use of the word “Braves.”

Arrigo said: “If the government or a school [district] can restrict the use of those words, it has a potential for government abuse and a mindset that threatens legitimate First Amendment rights.”

Education Department officials decided to research the topic after denying Robert Eurich's request for a civil rights appeal.

The Orange County activist wanted the Port Jervis school district to drop its “Red Raiders” mascot, which portrays an American Indian.

[In an e-mail message to the First Amendment Center after this story was posted originally, Eurich said: “When someone tells us that a word we are calling them is offensive, we should stop calling them that name. End of story. What's so hard about that? It's certainly not something that should require lawsuits to settle. In fact, it's something most of us should have learned in
kindergarten. Something called common courtesy and human decency.”

Eurich added: “Our wondrous right to free speech is a privilege which needs to be respected, not abused. It needs to be used thoughtfully, not recklessly, for words and images are very powerful, and potentially, dangerous things.”]

Commissioner Richard Mills said that Eurich, who is not of American Indian ancestry, had not shown that his civil rights or those of students in the district were violated by the mascot.

“However, I recognize the seriousness of the issue petitioner raises and that other districts statewide engage in similar practices,” Mills wrote. “I have therefore directed staff to review the matter.”

Representatives of the department's Native American unit were unavailable for comment.

“If references to Indians are distorted, then it's inappropriate,” said Wil Rose, chief executive officer of the Virginia-based American Indian Heritage Foundation. “The people who are using these [mascots] think it is their First Amendment right. It depends on your viewpoint. The other side say they have rights, too.”

Rose is particularly bothered by caricatures featuring images of Native Americans.

“Caricatures of any culture are not fair,” Rose said. “When you have a cartoon with a big face or a big nose, such as the Cleveland Indians logo, then that's not positive. The Washington Redskins, on the other hand, have a nice-looking logo.

“If the New York State Education Department is successful, they can remove all references to Native Americans in the school system unless those references honor or relate to the positive characteristics of the Indian communities.

“There are a lot of different opinions,” Rose said. “I don't speak for Indians, but my view is that if you're going to trade on the Indian culture, be positive, do positive things such as [fund] scholarships. Honor the Indian culture. Don't just trade on it for gain.”

Rose contends that the use of Native American names and images is not a big issue among Indians but is perceived to be because the vocal minorities receive the bulk of media coverage.

“Based on my experience and considerable observation, basically, only a minority of Native Americans has a problem with these images,” Rose said.

“As far as the media [are] concerned — and they're often anxious to be politically correct — they would take up the cause of the person who is offended even if it's one person. If they're articulate and an effective communicator, they would get most of the coverage,” Rose said.

According to education department officials, Eurich's appeal is the first to be filed in the state.