Tonight I had a unique experience to witness an intimate learning experience as a semi-outsider. I went to support my friend's daughter in her role as Student Liaison to her BOE in rural upstate NY. Her predominantly white school district voted at a June 7, 2016 BOE meeting to replace their "Indian" mascot with an "Eagle." To the credit of their teachers and the passion of the students, a human rights club and student council banded together to re-initiate the movement to replace the mascot due to the discriminatory nature of stereotyping Native Americans as cartoon-like aggressive characters.
But alas, despite the fact that the students thoroughly researched their case, and they knew the history of the movement (15 years prior a similar decision by the BOE was overturned after pushback and violence from the community), I think they underestimated the still existing strong emotions regarding the matter. The meeting tonight was designed for everyone who wanted to speak about the matter to have 3:00 minutes. Over 30 people were signed up to speak.
The learning the students demonstrated so eloquently tonight in quality research from legitimate sources, passionate persuasive writing , and articulate speaking was quite impressive. They recognized and honored human rights and cultural sensitivity. They had discussions, a call to action, a survey, a forum for dissenting views all as part of their process to make their case. And the BOE agreed, especially given their legal obligation to have non discriminatory practices.
Stating a strong passionate opinion to like-minded individuals is easy. Ask anyone who has de-friended all the political opinions on the other side of the Facebook isle. Many of these students will go on to strong liberal arts schools and have educational experiences that are far reaching in their creativity for problem solving and critical thinking. These will be wonderful learning experiences.
But they got one of the best ones they could tonight. The students gracefully and politely listened as adults that have come from 5 generations in that town gave their opinions about the "indian " mascot. It represented honor to them, integrity to who they were. Most genuinely did not believe they were being racist by invoking the mascot, but they were in fact remembering and honoring Native Americans. (Who they believed did not mind the name "Indians"). They spoke of relatives who had passed away who were "Indians" (athletes from this particular town, bonded by tradition) and how this move dishonors them. And the story was told of the 80s football state championship where the 18-0 snowy half time deficit was overcome by a rally that started with an Indian chant (I admit I cringed at that one) . I believe that listening to and tolerating views you do not share, is one of the best human skills in the 21st century.
Everything was going along predictably uncomfortably for everyone, until it took a sharp turn few were expecting. An older Native American woman got up to explain that her father had been forced to leave his home and go to a military school, and was disgraced by his American classmates. That her father taught her to not give up on who she was . But the cultural references to Native Americans were hers to make, not the white rural people who may have happened to live in an area once long ago populated by Native Americans ( which by the way, would be every where in America) . This woman was proud of the BOE that they were giving their students a symbol (Eagle) to be proud of and that it could represent joy and power and inclusiveness to the whole community without possibly alienating anyone. She was hard to argue with !
The "Save the Indians " crew, I will call them, changed the tune to "change is ok" , but the process was wrong, it should be a referendum of the whole town (like 15 years ago) , resignations were called for, accusations of political posturing flew around, but the very best idea was called for by some sensible people who were there to support the students and the BOE. They said that it was apparent that the entire community would benefit from cultural sensitivity and tolerance training. (couldn't we all ?!) Just maybe plan the vote for after the training !
I think about my daughter and her passionate writing about gun control laws and the political climate today where everyone has so much to say but doesn't appear to be hearing one another. I think about the many people who let tradition, and agreement with their elders as a bonding experience, get in the way of accepting new and progressive ideas that are inclusive of all humans. But I've seen change in my lifetime and I hope our children get to see much more.
Maybe the circus and the monkeys do belong to all of us jointly ?