Indian mascot debate resurfaces
By MAUREEN BYRNE AHERN
SEMINOLE -- First the logo was removed from the school's T-shirts. Then the feathered headdress was taken off the stationery.
In the 4 1/2 years since Judy LeBoeuf has been principal at Seminole Middle School, she has slowly eliminated any references to what was the school's mascot for 30 years: a Seminole Indian.
In this day of cultural sensitivity, LeBoeuf says, the school's use of an American Indian for a mascot could send the wrong message. "We are trying to do away with anything that could be distasteful to anyone," she said.
In fact, LeBoeuf continued, the school doesn't need a mascot. "We are just very content to be Seminole Middle School," she said.
Members of the American Indian Movement of Florida would like all schools in the state to follow LeBoeuf. The group wants school districts throughout Florida to stop using Indian peoples and cultures for team names and mascots because it "dehumanizes Native Americans, it perpetuates inaccurate images, and it would not be tolerated if it affected other historically oppressed people."
In Pinellas, AIM is targeting the Seminole community, whose name comes from the Florida Seminole Indians, the only tribe never to sign a peace treaty with the U.S. government.
Many of the public schools here are named after the tribe or one of its well-known leaders, Chief Osceola. One elementary school even calls its mascot the Braves even though its name has no reference to Indians. Sheridan Murphy, executive director of AIM, recently sent a letter to the Pinellas County School Board, asking members to study the district's mascots. It was not his first request. Two and a half years ago, Murphy urged district leaders to use books written by Indians and to guard against stereotypical portrayals of Indians. The district studied the schools' mascots and didn't find any that were offensive. It even got an approval from James E. Billie, chairman of the Seminole Tribe.
As far as the district was concerned, the issue was resolved, said Sheila Keller, director of community services and human relations. "We made sure through the tribal council and its legal department that we weren't skating on thin ice," she said.
But at a School Board workshop last week, the mascot subject resurfaced with AIM's new letter. School Board Chairwoman Linda Lerner says she wants to revisit the issue. She says the district and AIM should have had a discussion two years ago.
"At that time, the majority of the board did not want a dialogue with him, but I did," Lerner said.
That hasn't changed. Only this time, Lerner and newly elected board member Mary Brown will meet with Murphy. "I think it's a sensitivity issue," Lerner said. "There are many Native American Indians who feel very strongly about this."
The National Coalition on Racism in Sports and the Media was established in 1992 by AIM leaders to organize against the use of Indian images and names for logos, symbols or mascots in professional and collegiate sports, marketing and the media.
The coalition's Web site also lists public and private primary and secondary schools in the country that use Indian images. There are 84 such schools in Florida, with six in Pinellas, including Bauder Elementary's Braves, Seminole Elementary's Seminoles, Osceola High's Warriors, Seminole Middle's Chiefs, Safety Harbor Elementary's Indians and Safety Harbor Middle's Warriors.
Seminole High School, which roots for the Warhawks, isn't on the list, though. Its mascot, a bird named Wally the Warhawk, has two versions: One is the head of a hawk and another is an upright bird wearing a headband with a single feather.
Students and alumni across the country guard their school colors and mascots with pride, saying their team names were not meant to offend. Rather, some say, they are meant to honor American Indians.
"The symbols in the schools have been a sign of power in a positive way," said School Board member Lee Benjamin.
Osceola High has a crest with "Chief" Osceola, who according to the official Web site of the Seminole Tribe, wasn't actually a chief, but a great warrior who led the Seminoles in war against the white settlers.
For decades, American Indians have protested the stereotypical way they are portrayed in sports logos, such as the Atlanta Braves and the Cleveland Indians. Rather than believing that such mascots are an honor, they say they are racist and create poor self-esteem for American Indians.
"If the people being honored feel only degradation, pain, racism and disgust, then where is the honor?" asks the National Coalition on Racism in Sports and the Media.
LeBoeuf, Seminole Middle's principal, says she doesn't think that any of these mascots were meant to be offensive. But cultural sensitivity wasn't what it is today when many of the logos, team names and mascots were born, she said.
"It's one of those things that has always been but nothing was ever said," she said. "But it's time to rethink."
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