By Catherine Kozak | Outer Banks Voice on September 2, 2020
This story is co-published with the Coastal Review Online.
When the Clyde A. Erwin High School in Buncombe County was under national media klieg lights more than 20 years ago due to a U.S. Justice Department civil rights investigation of its Indian mascots, the Manteo “Redskins” and “Braves” sports teams in Dare County remained distant from the growing national controversy over names Native Americans viewed as insulting and disrespectful.
Eventually, the Asheville school changed its offensive “Squaw” mascot to “Lady Warriors.” In response to the 2002 State Board of Education directive that required North Carolina school districts to review any use of Indian mascot names, Manteo scaled back Native American imagery in its mascots — while keeping the “Redskins” and “Braves” team names.
But now, some former and current students and community members say it’s past time for the names to go. And the matter will soon formally make its way to the Dare County Board of Education.
Citing the Black Lives Matter movement as inspiration, some alumni of the Manteo schools submitted an online petition with more than 12,000 signatures urging that the mascots be retired to the board of education in August. On Sept. 2, a subcommittee of the board agreed to add the alumni presentation on the issue to the agenda for its 5 p.m. meeting on Tuesday, Sept. 8, according to Dare schools spokesman Keith Parker. The meeting will be streamed live online.
“The use of these mascots is deeply harmful to the cause of creating sustainable and positive
race relations in our community,” the petition says. “Changing these mascots is a small but symbolic step towards dismantling racist structures and building dialogue and accountability.”
The petition is also asking the district to “increase education about regional and national Native American communities and efforts to create an anti-racist school community.”
Named for Algonquian Native Americans Wanchese and Manteo, who interacted on Roanoke Island with the “Lost Colony’” — the famed English colony that mysteriously disappeared — Manteo High School adopted its Redskins mascot, an Indian brave’s head, sometime before World War II. The “Braves” name and logo was adopted by Manteo elementary and middle schools.
Holly Overton, a 2005 Manteo High graduate, said she remembered feeling “weird” about the “Redskins” name, but nobody ever said anything about it when she was in school. Many Native Americans consider the name, which refers to a murdered Native American’s scalp, to be a racial slur.
Years later, Overton said, her memory of that discomfort was stirred by the recent black activist movement. In examining her “privilege,” she said, she realized that Native American mascots are examples of the perception of “other” that is outside the white person’s frame. “That was the trigger,” she said in an interview. “I started texting some of my friends.”
Overton, who is a painter and musician in Brooklyn, N.Y., soon connected with Manteo alumni Rachel Endsley (2005), Evan Harrison (2002) and Kristen McCown (2007) and they worked together with people in other school districts who have addressed the issue.
A petition drive in Gaston County is underway to retire the South Point Red Raiders in Belmont, which uses a mascot with similar imagery to Manteo’s Redskins mascot. Overton also contacted Monroe Gilmour, coordinator of the North Carolina Mascot Education & Action Group in Asheville.
Gilmour, who has been involved in the mascot issue since the 1990s, said the group was advised back then that attempts to force an outright ban of the mascots used in 73 school districts throughout North Carolina would create intense backlash; change would have to come from the community itself. That advice proved to be wise — and effective.
“We got forty schools to stop using Indian mascots,” he said in a recent telephone interview.
Over the years, interest in the mascot issue waned, except for occasional flare-ups inspired by the controversy over the Washington NFL team name.
But it seems that the Black Lives Matter movement, and the protests that followed the killing of George Floyd, reinvigorated the issue. Out of the blue, Gilmour recounted, he received a call in June from a South Point alumni. The next day, he received a call from Overton. Then he received another call from an alumni from Social Circle, Ga. schools, which also use the “Redskin” moniker.
“All three of them contacted me within a matter of three days,” he says.
With the strong emotions and passions attached to mascot names — ranging from community members who identify with the teams they grew up rooting for to Native Americans who grew up feeling belittled by the characterization of their culture — changing those names has been a slow and conflicted process.
Gilmour recalls that when activist Charlene Teters, often referred to as the “Rosa Parks of American Indians,” visited Asheville in 1998, some students lowered a banner where she was speaking that read: “Scalp ‘em.”
In March 2020, the National Indian Education Association issued a new resolution calling for “the immediate elimination of race-based Indian logos, mascots, and names from educational institutions throughout the Nation.”
What concerns Gilmour, he says, is how often school administrators have dismissed the underlying racism in the mascots. “Educators are so cowed by fear of the alumni,” he says, “that they don’t do what they know they should do.”
Linguist Geoffrey Nunberg, who died last month, had testified as an expert witness for an American Indian group seeking to revoke the trademark for the Washington Redskins football team, according to his obituary in The Washington Post.
In his testimony, the Post reported, Nunberg — known for 30 years of language commentaries on NPR’s Fresh Air — called the use of the word “Redskin” a “racial slur” defined in the American Heritage Dictionary as “offensive slang.”
But despite years of controversy and criticism, Washington team owner Dan Snyder refused to consider retiring the named that his team adopted in 1933. “We’ll never change the name,” he declared in 2013 to USA Today. “It’s that simple. NEVER — you can use caps.”
At the time, about 79 percent of Americans polled about the name agreed with Snyder, according to ESPN.com. As part of the rationale for keeping the name, the NFL cited various high schools throughout the country who used the “Redskins” mascot. Under pressure from a number of quarters, including advertisers, Snyder recently reversed course and agreed to change the name.
Marilyn Berry Morrison, chief of the Roanoke-Hatteras Tribe, says there are about 200 or so members from the Outer Banks on the official roll. But native heritage has been difficult to trace, she said, because of the fear of “being carted off to the reservation,” combined with the tradition of oral, rather than written, history.
As it is for Washington, Morrison says it’s long overdue for Manteo to toss its “Redskins” mascot.
“Well, we tried to get this changed years ago, but it fell through the cracks and I’m glad that it’s surfaced again,” she says. “Ditching the cringe-worthy name would send a very, very important message. We are evolving. I know we can find something more suitable and appropriate to honor Manteo High School.”
Some names suggested in comments by people who signed the petition include Mariners, Seafarers, Falcons, Algonkians and Pirates.
Robin Sawyer, a former journalism teacher at Manteo High School from 1991 to 2004 and then at First Flight High School from 2004 until she retired in 2015, understands the reason why “Redskins” is offensive.
But the name also has a strong association to alumni heritage, especially for older generations, Sawyer notes. People feel sentimental, she says, about the dedication of the coaches and players, about the camaraderie and excitement of rooting for the team, about the Redskins being so closely identified with the community
Yet, Sawyer says, spending time fighting over the “Redskins” name strikes her as “frivolous.”
She adds that, “It breaks my heart that we’ve made things like this so impersonal, that we forget that things like this are so personal. In the big picture, I don’t give a flip about it. In the personal picture, it is heartbreaking.”
Jerry Cahoon, a retired teacher who at age 85 looks back fondly on his 30 years coaching the Manteo Redskins football team, sounded resigned about the name changing.
To the community, he says, he believes the mascot name was meant to show Manteo’s pride in its Native American history, “but we’re not Indians, and I don’t know how they feel.”
And while he says a new name might take getting used to, he adds that it would not take away the team spirit.
“There’s going to be a lot of people that are going to miss Redskins,” Cahoon says, adding: “I think our fans are still going to be our fans.”