MARILLA, N.Y. (WIVB) — The town of Marilla plans to oppose the New York State Education Department’s memo saying schools with Native American names, logos or mascots must commit to change them.

The resolution was on the Thursday night agenda, but the vote was postponed until the next meeting after the local school district asked the town to wait.

Elma, Marilla and Wales comprise the Iroquois Central School District. School officials are mulling the district being forced to change its nickname, mascot and logo over a new State Department of Education regulation. Iroquois goes by the nickname Chiefs is one of a handful of schools in Western New York that the state has targeted to change its nickname.

“The point is to let the Iroquois School Board know that the community is behind them as much as possible in combating New York State. To move forward in a positive direction working with the Seneca Nation. Hopefully we can sit down with them and let them realize the communities really respect their heritage and want to work with them,” Earl Gingerich Jr., Marilla Town Supervisors, said.

In November, the State Department of Education issued a memo that New York schools must commit to getting rid of any Native American or Indigenous mascots by the end of the 2022-23 school year or face repercussions. A court decision in June prohibited the use of it.

Schools that refuse to get rid of their Native American mascot, logo or name risk losing state funding and the removal of school officers.

Gingerich says he wants to hear from the Seneca Nation.

“The point is to let the Iroquois School Board know that the community is behind them as much as possible in combating New York State. To move forward in a positive direction working with the Seneca Nation. Hopefully we can sit down with them and let them realize the communities really respect their heritage and want to work with them,” Gingerich said.

News 4 received a statement from Seneca Nation President Rickey Armstrong, Sr. on the issue:

The decision handed down by the state Education Department is a positive step whose time has long since come. Names and imagery that mock, degrade and devalue Native heritage, culture and people have no place in our society. The historic decimation of Native people should not be celebrated in any fashion or used as a community rallying cry, especially in the realm of education. While individuals in different communities may not associate their team names with the horrors that Native people have faced throughout history, the fact remains that many team names and images further longstanding anti-Native biases.

The state’s decision appropriately suggests consultation between school communities and Native Nations. The Seneca Nation has long believed that dialogue, rooted in respect and understanding, can yield positive results. Respecting Native people, our culture, and our history is not a one-community issue, but a conversation that needs to happen in all communities and districts where Native-themed nicknames and imagery are still in use. This includes the Salamanca City Central School District, located on our Allegany Territory, which has a very unique relationship with the Seneca Nation. We will have further discussions with the district’s leaders, just as we have had conversations with multiple school districts in recent years.

Our Nation remains willing to participate in further discussions so that school districts and their communities can come together to support team names and imagery that reflects and respects the character and value of all residents and students.

Rickey Armstrong, Sr., Seneca Nation President

On Wednesday, Iroquois Schools held its board of education meeting where district leaders say they plan to listen to concerns from Native Nations and wait for additional guidance from the state before making any change.

“We have to listen and learn. We have to become more knowledgeable. We have to be more knowledgeable about what the state is looking for and the process of what they’re looking for has to be accomplished,” Douglas Scofield, Superintendent of Iroquois Central Schools, said.

If schools do not comply by the end of the school year, they will be in violation of the Dignity Act. As a result, they would be risking the removal of school officers, including the district superintendent, or withholding of state aid. The names, mascots and logos will be replaced in June 2024. Faced with these penalties, Iroquois Schools say it does plan to follow the New York State Regulations. The district hopes to receive more guidance on the memo early next year. It also plans to consult with the Seneca Nation and other experts about the nickname and logo, too.

Many board members criticized the New York State Education Department and said the memo was vague and didn’t include key details, such as who would pay to make these changes. Districts say team uniforms, athletic fields, building walls, signage, and other items will have to change if the nickname, mascot or logo is altered, which could be a significant expense.

NYSED stated that “schools that continue to utilize Native American team names, logos, and/or imagery without current approval from a recognized tribe must immediately come into
compliance.”

Residents spoke out about the potential name and mascot change at the Iroquois School Board Meeting saying they do not want to change their school’s history. They also feel the name honors Native Nations.

In 2015, the Lancaster School District changed its name from Redskins to Legends, a move that divided the town. Students voted on the new name and logo design, which was designed by classmates.

The school is expected to create additional guidance on replacing imagery in the schools, as well as uniforms, at a later date.

Tara Lynch is a Buffalo native who joined the News 4 team as a reporter in 2022. She previously worked at WETM in Elmira, N.Y., a sister station of News 4. You can follow Tara on Facebook and Twitter and find more of her work here.