2011-07-01 / Opinion

Sanford should forget surveys, just get a new mascot

Is the term “redskins” an offensive slur or just an old-fashioned term that shouldn't cause much fuss? The school district in Sanford is currently wrestling with getting rid of the name Redskins for its school mascot, after receiving a complaint from the Maine Indian Tribal State Commission.

Although the issue has been batted around for years, with mixed reactions, we feel it's a no-brainer for Sanford to ditch the name. You don't need surveys and contemplation on this one ”“ it's common sense that a racial slur should not be used to describe a sports team. Would we endorse the Sanford Honkies or the Sanford Frogs? No, so why are we still debating “redskins”?

Clearly, the school has some inkling of its mascot's offensive nature. Sanford is not proud of this mascot, or it would have “Redskins” emblazoned on its gymnasium floor, its football field and every jersey, and would not hesitate to use it whenever possible to promote school teams of all sorts. Instead, the school district stopped actively using the actual mascot name years ago and has substituted a giant red “S” in its place.

The district has talked about having students come up with a new mascot name, which is a great idea, but it shouldn't be put off until the new high school is built in three to five years. Though the school board has been tiptoeing around this issue, there's really no need for such delay.

It's human nature to want tradition and continuity, so some community members will undoubtedly cling to the mascot name regardless of any opposition, simply because they haven't known anything else. But sometimes change is good.

School mascots are supposed to be tough, to promote a school team's prowess whether on the field or at a math meet. The Biddeford Tigers will tear you apart, the Thornton Academy Trojans will stomp you out with their war-like ways, and the Old Orchard Beach Seagulls will at least steal your lunch right out of your hand. If Sanford wanted to use the name of a Native American tribe, or a more generic term like “braves,” that would simply evoke toughness, much like Notre Dame's “Fighting Irish.” The difference here is that it's not saying the “Fighting Micks.” Slurs simply need to be avoided.

Some have argued that the term “redskins” isn't really offensive and people need to get over it ”“ after all, it's just a name. A 2004 Annenburg survey confirmed that out of 768 Native Americans in nearly every state, 90 percent did not consider the term offensive. That sentiment is why the National Football League's Washington Redskins have kept their 1930s name.

Even official standpoints on the term have been mixed. According to the Associated Press, a panel of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office canceled the Washington Redskins' trademarks in 1999 on the grounds that the name disparages Native Americans in violation of federal trademark law. But in 2003, a federal judge ruled the team can keep its name, finding insufficient evidence to conclude it is an insult to Native Americans, the AP reported. Locally, Maine Indian Tribal State Commission Executive Director John Dieffenbacher-Krall has said “redskins is the worst of the worst,” of offensive terms, referring to when bounty hunters were offered rewards for Native American scalps.

It's easy to be OK with a racial slur or disparaging term when it doesn't apply to you, and perhaps some of those surveyed feel disconnected from their culture. It also seems likely that those who are of Native American descent and don't find terms like “redskins” offensive or inappropriate are probably just ignorant of the history of the word or have become desensitized to it.

It is difficult, in the 21st century, for any of us to really understand the suffering of the Native Americans. The destruction of their cultures is one of the darkest chapters in what became American history, and though we've been taught about that history, it takes a deeper education to fully appreciate how it would hurt to hear the term “redskin” used so casually by a school district.

Though Native American history is further in the past, older black Americans today can probably identify best with this debate, as they remember a time only a few decades ago when racial slurs framed the setting for a world in which they were treated as second-class citizens. Those who were immigrants to this area, from the Polish to the French Canadians and Greeks, also know the hurt of derogatory names.

History shows the power of words and the change that rides along when we start eschewing some terms in favor of others, with the women's movement a strong example of such an effort. Yes, the world has gone overboard in the past with political correctness, but there are some terms that hit deep roots of pain for a particular people and  we just don't need to use or endorse those words anymore.

Look in any paper from the 1930s-60s and you'll see headlines that use the word “Jap” to describe the Japanese disparagingly during World War II, see the term “Negro” used to describe children trying to attend school. These terms have passed away along with the mentalities that went with them. Today, Native American culture is respected and the government has tried to make some restitution.

As they say in school, sometimes the right choice isn't popular and sometimes the popular choice isn't right. It's time for the Sanford school system to step up and make what may still be an unpopular choice by getting rid of “redskins” and finding a new mascot name of which the district can be proud.

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Questions? Comments? Contact Managing Editor Kristen Schulze Muszynski by calling 282-1535, Ext. 322, or via e-mail at kristenm@journaltribune.com.

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