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Always a Chief

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WORLD Radio - Always a Chief

A school on Long Island resists the New York Board of Governors’ directive to remove Native American imagery and nicknames


Massapequa players celebrate their overtime victory in the state tournament at the Hudson Valley Community College in Troy, N.Y., March 17, 2000. Associated Press/Photo by Ken Bizzigotti

MYRNA BROWN, HOST: It’s Tuesday the 22nd day of August, 2023.

Glad to have you along for today’s edition of The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Myrna Brown.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher.

First up: Go team!

AUDIO: One of the more unusual finishes, but it’s a goal, the Stanley Cup to the Chicago Blackhawks.

The 25th home run hit by the Braves in this 11-game-plus winning streak. And the Braves strike first, a lead-off homer, one-zip in Washington.

A few pro sports franchises still have Native American imagery in their team names … But in recent years, pressure to change names that some deem racist and ethnically offensive has been growing.

The NFL team formerly known as the Washington Redskins dropped the name and logo in 2020 and early in 2022 rebranded as the Washington Commanders. That didn’t go over well with fans.

BROWN: Well, the team now has a new group of owners that includes NBA Hall-of-Famer Magic Johnson. And in an interview with the Today Show back in July, Johnson hinted that another name change is possible.

JOHNSON: Everything's on the table, right, especially after this year. We, we, we'll see where we are with the name, but I can't say that right now.

EICHER: Then last week, the Native American Guardians Association sent a petition to the owner’s group asking them to change the name back.

This debate over native American imagery in sports branding is also happening on a state and local level, New York, for example. The state board of education recently demanded that schools replace their mascots by 2025 or risk losing state funding.

But one school on Long Island has decided to push back, and WORLD Intern Alex Carmenaty visited to find out why.

ALEX CARMENATY, INTERN: This past April, the New York State Board of Regents voted unanimously to ban Native American team names, mascots, and imagery in public schools.

AUDIO: Those in favor? Aye.

More than 130 New York school districts who have Native American themed nicknames are affected by this vote. Many are willing to comply, but one school district on Long Island is taking legal action.

SOUND: [2023 MASSAPEQUA HIGH SCHOOL GRADUATION]

The Massapequa School District has been the home of the Chiefs for over six decades. A nickname that comes from the town’s Native American roots dating back to the 17th century. In response to the state’s decision, Massapequa Board of Education President Kerry Wachter is spearheading a legal battle to keep the Chiefs, the Chiefs.

KERRY WACHTER: We believe that this is an overreach by New York State. All the people who made this edict or this regulation, not one of them was elected. They're all appointed.

Massapequa is filing the lawsuit at the end of this month. The town motto, "Once A Chief, Always A Chief" has become the rallying cry for this cause.

WACHTER: Kids are told that from when they first enter school, you know, once a chief always a chief. And that starts very early on. And that's why our building principal ends the high school graduation with once a chief always a chief because it applies to all of our students.

For many of the town’s 21,000 residents, the Massapequa Chief is a unifying symbol. This is especially so with Massapequa High School students.

WACHTER: I think it's a point of pride for not only our athletes, but all of our students, whether you're a theater kid, or you’re an academic kid, or you're an artist, or an athlete, we're all Chiefs.

Massapequa Athletics is one of the many reasons why the Chiefs are so important to this town. The high school athletics program has won numerous Nassau County, Long Island and New York State championships.

KAITLYN KILMEADE: We're here to win. We're here to play like when you're thinking, Oh, we have to play Massapequa like the Massapequa Chiefs. It's a tough game.

SOUND: [KILMEADE PLAYING SOCCER]

Kaitlyn Kilmeade played on the Varsity Girls Soccer team all four years of high school. Now a player at Union College, she says if you get rid of the Chiefs, the history behind many great wins also goes away.

KILMEADE: That wipes us of all the games we've won and the battles we put out on that field, because at the end of the day, you're representing the chiefs… every championship every Long Island, County, we're screaming chiefs on 3, 123 chiefs, at the end of the day, why wouldn't we want to keep that legacy? When years and years go on, and we're winning championships as the Chiefs it's a tribute. Not a disrespect.

Kilmeade is not the only one in her family that graduated from Massapequa High School. Her siblings, parents and grandparents were all born and raised in the same town.

KILMEADE: I look at it as opening a brand new whole high school, in my opinion, or, like you're rebranding a school district, that's something that people shouldn't take lightly. If my parents were a Chief, and I literally went to the same high school they did, and I had a different mascot, that's not something to be connected on. It's like renting a building.

So what do Native Americans think about this? John Kane is a Native American who sits on the New York State Education Department’s Indigenous Advisory Committee. He spoke to Fox 5 New York about how Native Americans are constant targets for team nicknames.

JOHN KANE: You can’t do it with Jewish people, you can’t do it with black people, you can’t do it with hispanic people, but you can still do it to us? We’re the only people used this way.

Harry Wallace is the former chief of the Un-ka-chug Nation. He lives on the Poos-pa-tuck Reservation in Mastic, New York. Along with the Chiefs name, Massapequa has a logo of a Native American Chief. Wallace told CBS 2 New York that he finds the logo appalling.

HARRY WALLACE: There is no chief that has ever looked like that. It is a fraudulent symbol. It is a disrespectful defiance of the law and hurtful to the Native community of Long Island.

Betsy Broderick lives in nearby Wantagh, where the school district in her town is also affected by New York State’s decision. Broderick would have no problem if the Wantagh Warriors kept their name and logo, and is ok with Massapequa trying to do the same thing. At the same time, she also is willing to consider an alternative that helps cool down the temperature.

BETSY BRODERICK: Well, times change and things change. If the name is outdated and if the people are offended by it, then maybe they should think about changing it. A team is made up of the players and the students in the high school and the spirit of the high school. A name is just a name.

According to Board of Education President Wachter, if Massapequa were to change their name, it would cost an estimated $2 million. A lot would go into paying the piper.

WACHTER: It's signage. It's, you know, gym floors, its fields, its scoreboards, its uniforms. Even like the staff, you know, the custodial staff and all their uniforms have it on there. So it's a lot of things. It's not going to be cheap.

Reporting for WORLD, I’m Alex Carmenaty in Massapequa, New York.


WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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