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School's Beloved 'Warrior' Mascot in Jeopardy, Local Tribe to Have Final Say on It

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The profile of a Native American man, a braid trailing down and feather jutting up, is tiled into a high school hallway, dyed into the weight room carpet and laid into the turf of the football field at Salamanca city schools.

School leaders say the omnipresent logo and “Warrior” name for the school athletic teams are sources of pride here, in the only U.S. city built on land leased from a Native American reservation.

But as New York joins states moving to ban schools’ use of indigenous nicknames and mascots because they diminish native cultures, the tribe may have the last say over whether the logo stays. When the state Board of Regents this month voted to prohibit public schools’ use of indigenous names, it included an exception for districts that receive written approval from a federally recognized tribal nation in New York.

It has put the tribe in an awkward spot.

While the Seneca Indian Nation’s leader has endorsed the ban, some citizens of the nation want to keep the logo, which was designed by a Seneca artist in the 1970s. About 38 percent of students in the public school system south of Buffalo, near the Pennsylvania line, are Native American, mostly citizens of the Seneca tribe.

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“The logo really represents us as a community,” said Marijah Skye, a 17-year-old student and Seneca citizen.

Superintendent Mark Beehler said he thinks it’s unfair of the Regents to put any tribal nation in the middle, where its decision could upset students and the community.

“I’m really not comfortable going to the Seneca Nationna and having them potentially be the bad guy here,” Beehler said in an interview.

On Tuesday, the school board authorized seeking approval from the Seneca Nation to keep the logo and Warrior nickname. The Seneca Nation did not immediately issue a decision.

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New York is one of at least 20 states that have taken or are considering action to address native-themed mascots used by public schools, according to the National Congress of American Indians, which tracks the issue.

In 2001, former New York Education Commissioner Richard Mills said using Native American symbols or depictions as mascots can become “a barrier to building a safe and nurturing school community and improving academic achievement for all students.” Today, there are more than 100 schools representing over 50 New York districts that still have such mascots.

Nationwide, 966 districts have native “themed” mascots, according to NCAI’s database, with “Braves,” “Chiefs,” “Warriors” and “Indians” the most widely used. A push to do away with such mascots gained momentum with a campaign targeting the name of the NFL’s Washington team, which in 2022 renamed itself the Commanders.

Seneca President Rickey Armstrong Sr. endorsed New York’s ban when it was proposed in November, while acknowledging the Salamanca school system’s “unique relationship” with the 8,000-member nation.

“We believe the state’s provision for agreements between school districts and native nations should be rare and limited, rather than an open invitation for districts to go ‘approval shopping’ among native nations,” Armstrong said.

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He said the nation, which operates a resort casino in Salamanca and others in Buffalo and Niagara Falls, said it would “carefully consider” how the standard may apply within the community.

Oregon, Washington and Connecticut are among those with similar laws, forbidding schools to use Native American nicknames unless they have permission from a tribe. Last year, the school board for Montville, Connecticut, voted to drop its “Indians” nickname after the neighboring Mohegan Tribe, owner of the Mohegan Sun casino, said it would prefer a different name.

In Salamanca, school officials have been preparing for the possibility of change, soliciting community input at forums and surveying students. Beehler said the majority, but not all, of those who weighed in supported the continued use of the logo and Warriors nickname.

Salamanca resident Michala Redeye, a Seneca citizen, said native and non-native residents have largely united around keeping the logo. That’s notable in a city that has seen divisions over issues including the property tax-exempt status of native residents and the city’s required lease payments to the Seneca Nation.

“I feel like a lot of the comments and stuff that has been put out there about the logo reminds people of why they’re in the community, what they love about the community. They’re tied to being a Salamanca Warrior,” said Redeye, who coordinates Native American programming in the schools.

Several students who belong to the Seneca Nation said the image stirs a sense of pride.

“It’s widely known,” 14-year-old Jaxon Crouse said, “especially around territory as a school, and it’s kind of just the community.”

The Western Journal has reviewed this Associated Press story and may have altered it prior to publication to ensure that it meets our editorial standards.

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