By David Loomis
INDIANA – Good for Indiana High School students lobbying to change its athletics nickname from “Indians” to something less offensive.
Their effort deserves recognition for media savvy and political initiative. The controversy vaulted from social media to the front page of the local daily newspaper three times during the slow-news month of August. And students, pro and con, expended shoe leather by taking the virtual debate to actual school board meetings, in-person.
Despite default stalemates in polarized debates, hopeful signs can be seen in this one. It’s not yet the activism of the #NeverAgain movement among Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School students. But it’s way beyond the capacity of the somnambulant U.S. Congress. And recent public comments at school board meetings even exhibited some of what the late U.S. Sen. John McCain’s prescribed for what ails us and stalls us.
FOR EXAMPLE, according to The Indiana Gazette, high school senior and petitioner Frankie Baumer couched opposition to the “racist” nickname partly in the context of apparently poor homework by the school system. Its icons of Native American culture – big feathered headdresses, totem poles — are inaccurate stereotypes, Baumer said.
Her prescription? “Nothing will change until we learn everything” about Indian culture, Baumer said.
Follow-up discussion at a later school board meeting included retired district teachers who asked board members to restore local history to the curriculum, among other community-focus subjects, including government and economics.
In these remarks of youth and age can be found a way forward – deeper learning about community and history, including native cultures that have been displaced. And that may lead to a change of mind that can lead to a change of name.
HOWEVER, change will take time and effort.
Abigail Adams, Ph.D., an anthropology professor and chairwoman of Indiana University of Pennsylvania’s Native American Awareness Council, recalls speaking to the local school board in 1989 about a name change. She was accompanied by an IUP faculty member.
“It is sad to me that we are still in the same place almost 3 decades later,” Adams wrote in a Sept. 6 email.
Consider the violence a year ago in Charlottesville. Those tiki-torch-toting white nationalists were resisting a plan to remove a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, a symbol to some of white supremacy. The statue still stands.
Closer to home, former school board member Diana Paccapaniccia spoke against the name change during an early-August school board meeting because, based on “a little research,” the Indians nickname honored a tribe that lived in southern Indiana County, she said.
A recent Indiana high-school grad said his opposition to the name change was rooted in the source of the change proposal — progressivism, whose advocates he stereotyped as “very misinformed.”
The student’s opposition was on firmer ground when he cited facts, including a 2016 Washington Post survey of a national sample of Native Americans. The poll asked respondents whether they were offended by the city’s NFL franchise name, the Redskins, a term arguably more noxious than “Indians.”
Nine of 10 Native American respondents said, no, they took no offense. The response was unchanged from a 2004 poll conducted by the Annenberg Public Policy Center, The Post reported.
Local statistics offer additional evidence against name change. The local school-district superintendent reported he had received one phone call in the past decade objecting to the Indians nickname.
And in the battle of online petitions, supporters of the status quo outnumber name-change advocates by about 6-1 at last count.
BUT NUMBERS ALONE may not settle such divisive debates. The question raised by advocates of the name change is whether it is appropriate for a public institution to disparage a minority, wittingly or not, particularly one that historically has been harmed by the majority.
As local students and teachers correctly argued, education is the key. They echo historian and author Edward Ayers, a former faculty member at the University of Virginia at Charlottesville and a former president of the University of Richmond. He was interviewed by PBS in the wake of the Charlottesville violence. Ayers’ remarks about Confederate monuments could be understood in the local context of American Indian symbols.
“If people understood why these monuments were put up when they were and who put them up, for what rationale, it could play an instructive role,” Ayers said. “There is not such a thing called history, and it never changes, and then we just honor it or not, but recognize that every generation is going to see these events of 150 years ago through different eyes.
“And, you know,” Ayers continued, “through the generations since the civil rights movement, it’s harder and harder for the older story of the Confederacy as merely a defense of states’ rights against the federal government to stand. But, as we have seen, some people want to hold on to that story for their own purposes today.”
Others have proposed accommodations:
— Leave the offending symbols in place, but add historically accurate context and contemporary perspective.
— Remove the offending symbols to a different setting – a museum, perhaps – where the additional historically accurate context can be learned at leisure.
These proposals are in motion in cities around the country, including Charlottesville, Richmond and Chapel Hill, N.C., where a crowd toppled a Confederate-soldier statue on the UNC-Chapel Hill campus late last month.
As McCain wrote in his farewell, “We never hide from history. We make history.”
IN INDIANA, PA., school board members are not obliged to act on the recent public debate over the high school’s sports nickname. No one asked them to. And nothing is on the agenda for the board’s next meeting that would address the question.
But the public discussion has led the way to reevaluation of local history. And, by the way, the Indiana County Historical & Genealogical Society already has a collection of local Native American artifacts. Presumably it is expandable.
David Loomis, Ph.D., retired associate professor of journalism at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, is editor of The HawkEye. Email firstname.lastname@example.org
The HawkEye invites comments on this and other opinions on issues of community interest.