For three days during the week of January 14, I attended a public hearing held at Bucks Community College in Newtown. The Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission (PHRC) scheduled the hearing to take testimony regarding “Redskins”–the symbol for activities at Neshaminy High School in Langhorne. Donna Fann-Boyle of Cherokee ancestry had been attending Neshaminy School Board meetings since 2012 asking removal of the “offensive R word image”. Her son attended the school. The symbol was emblazoned on uniforms, souvenirs and displayed at the school’s sanctioned events. After her son graduated, Fann-Boyle continued her appearances in front of the board, always pleading for the high school to drop the R word. It was an offensive term to Native Americans, conjuring images of the blood exposed after a scalping.
BACKGROUND ABOUT THIS COMPLAINT
Previously PHRC had ruled twice in favor of Donna Fann-Boyle, stating that the use of the R word for its sports teams and mascot was “racially derogatory”, creating “a hostile educational environment.” PHRC ordered the school to stop using the term and replace it with a “suitable, non-discriminatory…” name and mascot for its schools. After the School Board appealed this second ruling, the PHRC scheduled this hearing to include a judge and witnesses for each side.
THE SCHOOL SUPPORTERS
The expert witness for the School Board was Andre Billeaudeaux. He testified to the “culture” surrounding the R word. Billeaudeaux explained that Natives smearing red paint and red clay on their bodies as part of ceremonial rituals. His website includes information of his two published works: How the redskins got their name, about two preteens discovering how sports teams received their names; and The Real Lancaster Legend, about a high school in New York whose School Board ruled that the Native symbol should be replaced with a suitable mascot. Both of Billeaudeaux’s books attempt to justify the R word is established Native American culture.
Billeaudeaux is a retired veteran, a military journalist, television show host and magazine editor. He testified about his current focus on history and traditions of Native Americans through promoting the R Word at schools from primary through college levels. He testified that the R word holds “no racial offense” for sports teams or as “mascots” for those same institutions. He promotes this message at schools across America where Native symbols are under challenge by tribal members for their racially offensive imagery. He is associated with a 501(c)(3) organization called NAGA (National American Guardian Association). NAGA’s facebook page is filled with posts from friends devoted to Native American logos attached to sports teams.
This hearing heard testimony from other school board witnesses: teachers, students, parents and a school board member. Each stated the term was not offensive. Instead they considered the word brought “pride and honor” to the schools. When attorneys for PHRC asked each of them if they knew the meaning of “Redskin”, all knew of the dictionary’s definition: A racist term.
I was unable to attend the hearing the day testimony was heard from the expert witness for Fann-Boyle: Dr. Ellen J. Staurowsky–Program Director of Athletic Administration at Drexel University’s LeBow College of Business. The LeBow College website states Dr. Staurowsky to be–
“…internationally recognized as an expert on social justice issues in sport which include gender equity and Title IX, pay equity and equal employment opportunity, college athletes’ rights and the exploitation of college athletes, the faculty role in reforming college sport, representation of women in sport media, and the misappropriation of American Indian imagery in sport.”
TESTIMONY OF DONNA FANN-BOYLE
Donna Fann-Boyle’s deceased father was of Cherokee heritage from Oklahoma. For the past 31 years Fann-Boyle has made Bucks County her home. She has two grown sons, aged 37 and 20. When she moved into the Neshaminy School District it was her second son’s first year in high school. In her testimony she described her son’s distress from the continuing exposure to an image that offended him. Fann-Boyle had complained to the Assistant Principal and counselor, explaining the historic racism of the R word. After no action was taken by the school’s administration, starting in 2012 she began attending Neshaminy School Board meetings. She testified that over the years she spoke in front of the Board an “estimated 14 times”.
She reiterated the abundance of research material she had submitted to Board members and school staff, often emailing them information with links. Some of that information was published by Native educators about bounties placed on Natives; archeological studies; suicide in Native children; and the proliferation of incorrect history about Native Nation cultures. Fann-Boyle described her annoyance when seeing students dressed in headdresses–not a signature garb for the Lenni-Lenape tribe that inhabited this part of Bucks County.
Fann-Boyle described the pain she experienced seeing Neshaminy High School students smeared with red paint on their faces and their bodies. It reminded her of the oral histories she heard when a young girl.
The lessons I had been taught in elementary and high school stated that only “Indians” committed those horrific deeds. To be clear: Scalping was not confined to one culture.
Scalping has been documented in Europe as far back as the 11th Century. The Spanish Conquistadors landed in South America and destroyed advanced civilizations as they scalped their way north to what is now America .
Did Native cultures witness scalping and mimic it for their own purposes? Probably.
Historians record scalping by settlers in early America, usually for genocide or bounty. In 1755 Governor Spencer Phips the Lt. Governor of the Province of Massachusetts Bay, proclaimed bounty to citizens for each scalp taken from Penobscot Nation people. The Phips Proclamation paid forty pounds for each male scalp taken from Natives over the age of 12; and twenty-five pounds for each female scalp.
My racial mix is African, European and Native. When I read about the bounties placed on the Penobscot tribe, it reminded me of the bounties placed on runaway slaves in the 1600s when they were hung and/or mutilated.
Supporters of the mascot at the hearing overwhelmingly testified their loyalty. To them, an expression of “honor”. Not one supporter admitted knowing the Phips Proclamation’s history. They insisted there was nothing wrong when students painted red on their bodies and faces, wrapped a band of feathers around their head then jumped and hooted for their teams.
But this is playacting and is disrespectful. It’s as if students painted their faces black with a thick white outline for lips then strutted across a stage to music. At the hearing support witnesses continued to slide “Redskins” off their tongues even though “Skins” now appears on the school’s paraphernalia. Below is an image of the former logo.
PHRC is expected to publish their ruling sometime in July. I am rooting for removal of everything associated with the R word.