No nickname changes pending for two local high schools
East, Iroquois high schools avoid controversy that has dogged the Washington Redskins name, logo
While pressure has been mounting on Washington Redskins owner Daniel Snyder to change his NFL team's nickname and logo, no such pressure has been applied to a pair of local school districts that draw from the Native American culture to represent their respective athletic programs.
Officials at East High School – part of the Erie City School District – and Iroquois High School – the lone high school within the Iroquois School District – said they haven't heard from anyone recently regarding the use of their Native American-related nicknames, mascots or logos.
East High School, located on Atkins Street on Erie's east side, has been known as the Warriors for as long as anyone can remember. Jim Smith, who served as the school's principal for 5 1/2 years before being moved to Harding School last month, said he's seen old yearbooks and newsletters from the 1930s and '40s that referred to the Warriors nickname.
The roots of Iroquois' nickname – the Braves – don't run nearly that deep; the school district was formed in 1962 when districts serving Wesleyville Borough and Lawrence Park Township merged. Shane Murray, who became the Iroquois district superintendent in November and previously served as an assistant principal at Iroquois High School, said the community chose the Iroquois district name – and the Braves mascot – to honor the Native Americans who made the area their home.
That's not to say some changes haven't been made – or that further change won't be forthcoming. In fact, Murray said the high school football team is getting new uniforms and school officials are in the process of choosing a new logo. In recent years, the school has used a spear logo similar to that of Florida State, but in Iroquois' black and gold color scheme. Prior to that logo, the school used a block letter "I."
Other changes were made to the district's official letterhead, as a portrait of a Native American brave was replaced by a feather.
No one, Murray said, has voiced any concerns over the use of the Brave mascot for the school's athletic teams. He said the district name and the Braves nickname pay homage to the original tribes that came together to form the Iroquois league. "They were the regional natives and I think we honor them by having that name," he said.
Murray said the nickname "Braves" for the most part hasn't been to be offensive to the Native American culture on a national scale – something that can't be said for the nickname "Redskins" or even the Chief Wahoo logo that has long been part of the Cleveland Indians uniform.
Murray said he's particularly sensitive to the issue because he was born in Washington D.C., and he characterized himself as a "diehard" Redskins fan. In fact, Murray said the Redskins nickname triggered his interest in the Native American culture and prompted him to learn more about it.
He said he didn't realize the term was derogatory until people began to raise objections within the past decade or so.
"Being a history teacher, I know what we did to the Native Americans and how badly we treated the people and their culture," he said. "I understand their level of being upset, but for a kid growing up in the D.C. area, I saw (the nickname) as a way of honoring them. I was not a member of that culture and did not have that understanding, but I was able to be educated and now I can understand it."
Like Murray, Smith said he never had anyone say anything to him directly about East High School's Warrior mascot or nickname. "As soon as it comes up in the national spotlight, there are conversations that are had and our name comes up, but no one ever approached me while I was principal to discuss the nickname or the logo," he said.
Smith said some longtime staff members at East have expressed a desire to hold on to the Warrior nickname. "We've always associated being a warrior with having Warrior pride," he said, "and we remind our kids of that every time we meet with them. Being a Warrior and having pride in being Warriors is what it's all about at East High School. It's never been said in a negative connotation and no one's ever taken it that way."
Still, Smith said when he arrived as principal, he changed the logo a bit. "I wouldn't say it was barbaric, but it was more like what you might see in the movies – an Indian with a spear in hand," he said. "I wanted to change it a little so it wasn't so offensive and mean-spirited and make it more of a pride thing. That's why you see the headdress and see more of a warrior with pride."
John Harkins, president of the Erie City School District Board of Directors, said he can only recall one time during his 34-year board tenure when a member of the public expressed concern about the East Warriors nickname.
"There was a guy who claimed to be of American Indian ancestry," Harkins said. "He'd come to public meetings and he raised the question once, but I don't think he was objecting strongly."
Harkins said he could see why the Redskins name and logo would offend some people, but he said the Warriors name and logo aren't in the same ballpark.
"We're focusing on the bravery, the nobility, the purity and the courage of a warrior going into competition, as our high school sports teams do," he said. "I don't think it's offensive or potentially offensive. I think it's an appropriate nickname."
Even the use of the Native American in a headdress as the school's logo is seen more as a tribute and an honor than anything offensive, Harkins said. "It looks like someone who is wise, seasoned, courageously focused and willing to fight – but not quick to fight – in a noble way for a cause," he said. "The East Warrior is a good representation of that aspect of the culture or race."
Harkins said if the Redskins' Snyder ultimately is forced to change his team's nickname and/or logo, that doesn't automatically mean East would need to revisit its own nickname and logo.
"We'd react as the community reacted and called on us to react," he said. "But just as a kneejerk response to whatever happens with the NFL, I don't think we'd be obligated."
Smith said of the potential for change that "anything's possible. I could definitely see it if there was enough support from the community and they found it offensive. It would be an interesting battle between the alumni and the Native American community."
Frank Garland can be contacted at fGarland@ErieReader.com.