Goshen News, Goshen, IN

May 6, 2013

Some see ‘redskins’ as racist, others say it’s a non-issue


— GOSHEN — Here in the Maple City, the call for change is often quite soft. So while other communities and organizations throughout the country have been grappling with the Native American nickname issue, not much has been mentioned over the years in Goshen about its possibly insensitive high school nickname, the “Redskins.”

Many people simply regard the term as a unique and intimidating mascot that has become part of our community’s identity over the past nine decades.

“The Goshen Redskins is a name that has been around for an awful long time,” said Goshen City Council President Jim McKee. “The way I look at it, it’s meant to represent warriors and strength, so should be taken as a compliment.”

Richard Aguirre, who is director of communications and marketing at Goshen College, doesn’t see it as a compliment.

“It was originally devised to be a very derogatory name,” Aguirre said “… I don’t think it’s political correctness (changing the nickname). I think it’s trying to name people correctly.”

Aguirre is also a member of the Goshen Community Relations Commission, a group dedicated to foster positive, non-discriminatory relationships within the community. But while the group has tackled such hot-button topics as immigration and gay rights, it has not, Aguirre said, addressed the Redskins nickname.

“Though it wouldn’t surprise me,” he said, “if someday (we did).”

Aguirre said he understands the connection that people from Goshen have to the Redskins nickname, but that doesn’t change the fact many people regard it as a derogatory name. He thinks at some point such nicknames will have to go.

“The name will likely disappear,” Aguirre said, “but it will have to be done in a way that helps people understand how hurtful that name is to an Indian.”

Aguirre compared the “redskins” term to that of other racial slurs and said he doesn’t believe that some tribes ever endorsed the label of redskins or braves.

An advocate for change

Goshen High School alum Rich Meyer of Goshen agrees with Aguirre.

“Six out of six dictionaries will tell you ‘redskin’ is a derogatory, racist term,” Meyer said. “Native American tribes consistently oppose the use of Indian mascots unless it actually regards an Indian school.”

And of all the Indian mascot names, he said, “redskins” is the worst. Meyer said he talked to the principal and athletic director at Goshen High School approximately three or four years ago about the use of “Redskins.” School officials confirmed last week that Meyer has approached them in the past.

He was also told that the image of an Indian chief head was removed from the gym floor when it was refinished and that some sports teams have dropped “Redskins” from their uniforms.

“The question should be: Is Redskin a derogatory, racist slur?” he said. “I think the answer to that is clear. Knowing that, should we continue?”

While attending Goshen High School in the 1970s, Meyer said it did not even occur to him that the term “redskin” was derogatory because he was not aware of Native Americans as “a continuing, living social group.”

It wasn’t until his son worked on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota that it seemed more embarrassing. That sense of wrongness for those derogatory words has developed over the years as he has gotten to know people in the Lakota and Potawatomi nations.

“In Indian culture,” Meyer said, “using ‘redskin’ is the same as using (the “N” word).”

Potawatomi concerns

Paige Risser is director of communications for the Pokagon Band of the Potawatomi. She said the nickname issue can be complicated, but that ‘redskins’ is the one that raises eyebrows the highest.

“It’s a wide spectrum of opinions in talking about the mascot (issue),” Risser said. “... Of the many iterations, ‘redskins’ is … the one that draws the most attention.”

It’s a discussion the Pokagon are having among themselves in direct response to a complaint filed in February by the Michigan Department of Civil Rights against 35 schools. The department is asking the U.S. Department of Education and Office of Civil Rights to issue an order prohibiting the continued use of Native American mascots.

The Pokagon are not a party to the complaint, Risser said.

“At this point the tribe is talking internally with citizens to decide and see what their concerns and opinions are,” she said. “We are just in the process of coming together as a community to talk about this issue and what the many opinions might be.”

There is no official tribe response yet.

Risser said the mascot/nickname issue comes to the forefront every once in a while. It reignited again with the Michigan lawsuit and also with national pleas for the NFL’s Washington Redskins’ franchise to change its name.

Three of the Michigan school districts named in the complaint lie within the Pokagon district: Paw Paw (Redskins), Hartford (Indians) and Dowagiac (Chieftans).

“What’s different about this (complaint) is it’s not just about whether people think it’s offensive,” Risser said, “It’s about harm to native children — whether a mascot can harm a child’s development in school.”

But before the Pokagon give their opinion they want to “take the pulse” of their community, she iterated.

Pulse of Goshen

According to Goshen Mayor Allan Kauffman, a 1967 GHS grad, the name change issue is not one that is particularly new to Goshen, though it is one that many in Goshen politics both past and present have been reluctant to address due to its sensitive nature.

“This comes around every so many years, and nobody really wants to seriously address it,” Kauffman said. “I understand people who have a concern about these ethnic portrayals or slurs. I get that. But when it comes down to local politics and elected officials getting involved in whether we should be the Goshen High School Redskins or not, I don’t think you’ll find a whole lot of council members or the mayor interested in leading that charge.”

Should at some point the argument come to the City Council with a strong backing from the community, Kauffman said he would not oppose hearing an argument for a name change, though he added that without such a large, grassroots campaign behind it, he sees it as unlikely that the council would elect to pursue such a case on its own.

“I’m not married to the name Redskin, but I was never in sports,” Kauffman said. “I was in band, and maybe the kids who played on the football team or the basketball team, it might have a bigger emotional connection to them than it would to me. So I understand the issue.

Jeremy Stutsman, a Goshen City Council member and fellow GHS grad from the 1990s, took a similar stance to Kauffman’s.

“I’m kind of indifferent on the issue,” Stutsman said. “I don’t think it would be awful to change it. The way I look at it, we’ve named our teams after a group, and to me that’s a sign of respect. But I could understand how it might seem offensive if I was actually a member of that group. So I can see both sides.”

Stutsman said that should a loud enough cry for change come before the council from the community, he would not be opposed to looking at the issue, though likely not before.

“I guess if it was that big a deal, and people were feeling bad, that’s definitely something we should look at,” Stutsman said. “Also, if the school board and administration at some point down the line decide that’s a change they need to make, I fully support Goshen Schools, so if that’s something they feel is important, I would totally back them on that.”

As for Council President Jim McKee, “Redskins” seem just fine with him.

“I think it should be left alone,” McKee said. “I think there are plenty more important things that we should be dealing with right now. For me it really is a non-issue.”