After years of refusals, the NFL’s Washington Redskins ownership felt enough pressure to decide to change its name. For years, a debate raged as to whether the “Redskins” name was offensive to indigenous people and Native American tribes.
A new name has not yet been chosen, but in the wake of the decision a few hours down I-95, a local debate has just begun to stir. A petition was posted last weekend that requests the Toms River Regional school district change the name of High School South’s mascot from the “Indians” for the same reasons behind the Redskins’ decision. Additionally, the petition asks for the township’s logo, which depicts a large American Indian in headdress, to be changed.
Officials told Shorebeat they are open to a debate, but stopped short of endorsing a change. Schools Superintendent David Healy said the Indians’ nickname is woven into lessons taught about indigenous tribes and the meaning of the headdress and other aspects of native culture.
“It’s certainly something we will be discussing in the near future,” said Healy, who is currently busy trying to craft a plan to reopen schools when the state allows following the coronavirus shutdown.
A decision, however, will not come overnight and will not be based on the view of any one individual, such as the superintendent.
“The [Board of Education] is really, ultimately, responsible for the naming of buildings and other things,” said Healy. “But I anticipate a conversation will be happening soon. Any decision whether to keep, remove or change, will be subsequent to many discussions involving many stakeholders.”
The petition, which is published on the Change.org website, had garnered 671 signatures by Wednesday morning. The page, which is not attributed to an individual, but rather “Alumni of TR Schools,” opines that the ‘Indians’ name “has been sending the wrong message to students, staff, and the broader community for generations through the use of these misleading and insulting stereotypes.”
“Our students deserve better than being subjected to rallying around normalized racism and white supremacy,” the petition goes on to say. “It’s time we admit that race is not a mascot, and that the glorified depiction of a “Fighting Indian” is a dangerous whitewashing of history.”
The petition also calls for the removal of the names “Seminoles” for Intermediate School South and “Warriors” at Washington Street Elementary School.
The most famous “Seminoles” mascot at Florida State University, however, has historically been supported by the Seminole tribe. The tribal nation has even collaborated with the school to teach students about its history and traditions.
“It is used with explicit tribal permission and involvement to honor and promote the Seminole Tribe of Florida’s unconquered history and spirit that persists to this day,” a school spokeswoman told the Tampa Bay Times this week.
Healy said the situation is similar in Toms River.
“One of the things that High School South makes a point of doing is celebrating the Native Americans,” he said. “Mike Citta, at graduation, spoke about the chief’s head dress and how it represented honor, strength and wisdom, built one feather at a time. The portrayal at High School South is one of tribute and recognition.”
Mayor Maurice “Mo” Hill said he heard about the portion of the petition that seeks a change of the township’s logo, and it will be considered by the township, likely after the coronavirus crisis abates.
“The township seal goes back many years, and it be something the council will have to consider,” said Hill.
There are also monetary concerns.
“Just thinking of all the things we’d have to change, it would cost a lot of money and I don’t know what we’re actually going to accomplish,” he said.
Hill said his brother has served as an athletic director at Utah State University, whose teams are named after the Northern Utes tribe. Like the Seminoles in Florida, Hill said his brother reached out to the tribe on the name and they approved.
“I would certainly like to get input from the Native Americans before we go ahead and change something,” Hill said.