The public outcry that drove an upstate New York high school to drop the nickname "Redskins" on Monday has roiled the town of 40,000 people near the Canadian border, current and former students told BuzzFeed News.
The Lancaster High School board voted unanimously to drop the moniker after three nearby school districts canceled lacrosse games against Lancaster earlier this month. Lake Shore District Superintendent James Przepasniak, who participated in the boycott, told BuzzFeed News that at the beginning of March, students on the "predominantly Native American" lacrosse teams organized and elected a spokeswoman to ask the district to scrap the upcoming match.
"We recognize traditions are often hard to leave behind," Lancaster school board Superintendent Michael J. Vallely said at the meeting. "However, we need to rethink traditions when they become hurtful and perceived as disrespectful toward others, even unintentionally."
But that didn't sit with supporters of tradition. Adults at the meeting chanted, "Let's go Redskins!" at board members — while others in the room, many Native Americans, sat quietly — and shouted that the board would regret their decision. School board president Kenneth Graber said the board received threats that they would be kicked out of office and "Redskins" supporters would even organize a way to vote down next month's school budget.
On Twitter, students and alumni said they were frustrated and confused about why the nickname was "suddenly" offensive. Students on Instagram posted photos in their "Redskins" gear, hashtagging it "#OnceARedskinAlwaysARedskin."
Through that hashtag, students from Lancaster Middle School and Lancaster High School organized a rally in support of the name for Thursday morning. More than 100 attended, and some left class to march to the school administration building, returning to school around 10 a.m., several participants said. One student carried a sign with the school logo and a quote from Elie Wiesel's Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech: "We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented."
Other signs were more simple: "Redskins forever," and, of course: "Once a Redskin, always a Redskin."
One Lancaster High School alumnus, Keith Stoerr, told BuzzFeed News that he feels a strong connection to the "Redskins" nickname because of its association with sports teams. He learned the nickname was "mildly offensive" during a conversation with a Native American student at another school, but sees it as no different than the "Hillbillies" nickname used by nearby Fredonia High School.
Valerie Bello, who attended another high school in Lancaster, and whose eldest son also attends kindergarten in the school district, said she believes the school board did the right thing. "Racism deserves no institutional support or passive endorsement, and by letting the name stand, that's exactly what the Lancaster School District would have been doing," she told BuzzFeed News.
"I don't think my neighbors who supported keeping the name are racists. I don't think they view the term 'Redskin' with any more depth than it serving as just a nickname — which is really ironic when you consider the ire the name change has drawn from residents," she added.
Some think that people on both sides of the argument just aren't explaining their point very well, causing the tension. "There was lack of success on both sides to articulate what Redskin pride means to us, and the victimization felt by American Indians that we as Lancasterians may not be privy to first hand," said another Lancaster alumnus, who asked to go by TJ.
Other former students who said the name should be changed criticized supporters, saying they are stuck in their high school years. TJ feels this overlooks a large constituency of people who support the name, like teachers and coaches, who are "making thousands of high school experiences positive and memorable. They are not clinging to high school. This is their career. This is their life."
Peter Cimino, whose three children are in the Lancaster school district, said that while he doesn't disagree with the decision, he think the school board's process was disappointing. "They never came to the people who live in the district nor did they take a vote either from the kids or families," he said. "There are families that have sports equipment that has the Redskin logos they just paid for. Now what do they do? Spend another $120 to get new gear without the logo?"
Cimino says he "certainly doesn't want anyone ever to feel bad if a name is negative or derogatory," but "never thought [of the term] as a degrading, demeaning, or negative, nor did anyone in my family. We were proud to display that we are as tough as the Native Americans who were named Redskins."
Popular or not, the Lancaster school board said it's sticking by its decision. "People, ethics, and standards evolve," Graber said at the meeting. "What was acceptable 70 years ago is not acceptable now. Native Americans do not feel honored."