On January 2 of this year I posted a blog (“The R Word”) about a hearing called by the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission (PHRC). The hearing was held at Bucks County Community College to take testimony from witnesses on behalf of the Neshaminy School Board in defense of their high school’s mascot: A Native American symbolically called ‘Redskins’. Testifying against the mascot was Donna Fann-Boyle of Cherokee-Choctaw heritage whose children attended the School. In 2013 she initially had complained to the school about the racist symbolism of the mascot.
At the heart of this complaint is the word redskins which American history first uttered from the tongues of our country’s forefathers in 1755. This racist term referred to the horrific condition of human tissue exposed after the hair was ripped from the skulls of our original Americans.
The PHRC announced they would issue a final ruling of this struggle on Monday November 25, 2019.
That morning I hitched a ride along with Donna, her film documentarian Chris, Child Educator Lynne Azarchi, Native Chilean Mabel Negrete and Lenape Native Ann Mongillo Remy.
Standing left to right, Lynne Azarchi and Don Gallagher. Seated left to right Mabel Negrete, Ann Mongillo Remy, Donna Fann-Boyle and Ramona Ioronhiaa Woods.
At Harrisburg we were joined in the Commission’s expansive hearing room with a few more supporters including activists Don Gallagher, Arla Patch and Mohawk Native Ramona Ioronhiaa Woods. I scanned the room but could not see any one in support of the Neshaminy High School or the School Board.
PHRC Chair Joel Bolstein briefly reviewed the case history before announcing the FINAL ORDER. His review included Donna Fann-Boyle’s long journey of complaints to the high school and her testimonies at numerous School Board meetings. He then summarized the six Orders the school must comply with.
(Note: The 59-page document is published on PHRC’s website. The list of six Final Orders begins on page 57.)
When Chairman Bolstein read portions from each of the Orders, we felt the air suck out of the room.
ORDER 1 in Part reads: “… within 90 days the District shall cease and desist from the use of any and all logos and imagery in the Neshaminy High School that negatively stereotypes Native Americans.”
ORDER #2 in Whole reads: “That, at this time, the use of the term Redskins shall be permitted so long as the requisite educational information is provided to District students to ensure that students do not form the idea that it is acceptable to stereotype any group. The educational requirement shall continue as long as the District continues the use of the term Redskins. If, at any time, the District elects to discontinue the use of the term Redskins, the requisite educational information must still be provided to District students for a period to two years.”
The education component in the Final Order is extensive.
Chairman Bolstein also stated that because no Native American student or students came forward to say they were harmed by the word or logo or imagery, “… that portion of the PHRC Complaint should be dismissed.”
The word Redskins is allowed to remain.
After completing his presentation we were given the opportunity to speak. Visibly disturbed that the R Word would remain, Donna rose first. She expressed disappointment that the Commission dismissed the portion of the complaint that no evidence was presented that a “… Native American student or students were harmed by the use of the word Redskin.” She had decided her son would not speak at School Board meetings in order to protect him from student harassment. She has since the first filing of this complaint, been the target of cyber-bullying. She then read a letter from tribal leaders expressing the harm that word dredges throughout Native American Nations.
I could hear Ann quietly weeping. Ann had attended schools in Neshaminy School District. She spoke after Donna, recalling how her grandfather had visited elementary classes and described the Lenape culture to students. Ann said that after she entered middle and senior high school, she reiterated how she was often ridiculed, to the point that she’s never attended her high school reunions.
Ramona expressed the power of Native American culture. Speaking directly to the few Commission members of color, she asked, “How could you consider voting in favor of this?”
Lynn Azarchi, Executive Director of KIDSBRIDGE is responsible for programs of bullying prevention, social emotional skills and diversity education. She commented on the challenges Neshaminy High School will be tasked with in order to abide by PHRC’s ruling .
To the Commission I recalled my reaction when attending the January 2019 hearing where school supporters admitted under oath they did not know the origins of the word. ‘Redskin’: Its origins reach back to 1755 when Massachusetts Lt. Governor Spencer Phips proclaimed that payment would be given for Indian scalps.
“Forty pounds for every male Penobscot Indian scalp above the age of twelve years as “evidence of their being killed. Bounty for females: “twenty-five pounds”.
I commented how the bounty on Native Americans was just like the bounty on fugitive slaves who when captured were hung or mutilated or burned to ashes. I recalled for them that no witnesses for the school board knew the origin of the R word.
On Monday December 2, The Neshaminy School Board announced in a press release that they would appeal the PHRC ruling. Watch for my second post about thoughts on this struggle. The Court that will hear the appeal is the Commonwealth Court in Harrisburg.
The struggle continues.