Guest Editorial: The Owego Indian Mascot Controversy; A Harbinger of Things to Come

The controversy relating to changing the name of the “Owego Indians” into something else is a tough one. The identity of the school with its Native American roots certainly does not seem offensive to myself, and I think that this is the case with the thousands of people who have passed through the doors of this school district.

By coming up with a new “identity” is there a risk that instead of showing respect for those people who came before white settlement, it ends up eliminating one of the primary means by which the inhabitants of this county are reminded of those who lived here for many previous centuries.  

A big problem is that the “tempest” which is raging in this small corner of the globe is part of a much larger re-evaluation of history taking place in many localities around the world. We like to think of history as something that is static: a nice timeline of dates, facts, events that chronicles the accomplishments, triumphs, tragedies and follies of human existence.

I once thought of history in those terms myself, but many years ago realized that new data appears or some new interpretation comes along that will throw a monkey wrench into your carefully constructed view of the past.  

So where do you start? How about the names that we have used for generations referring to the tribes themselves? Exactly who controlled this piece of real estate we now call Tioga County prior to 1783 can be debatable. A number of the tribes of the Six Nations were contacted to see if a waiver could be granted to Owego to keep its Indian identity. The answers were negative.

These tribes had been referred to as the “Iroquois Confederacy”, but that term is being phased out. The Confederacy still exists, but these natives want to be referred to as the “Haudenosaunee”, or “people of the longhouse”. The term Six Nations is perfectly acceptable (originally five nations, the Tuscarora from the Carolinas joined in 1722.)(1) 

Two terms that are worth knowing in this debate are exonym (a term that is given by an outside group) and endonym (a term used by the individual tribe in referring to themselves). The Delaware now want to be the Leni Lenape. (2) The Sioux want to be the Dakota or Lakota; the Navajo the Dine; the Eskimos are now the Inuit, the Yupik or Aleut.  

The names of the tribes are not only in a state of flux; literally hundreds of geographical names are being given the same treatment. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, the first Native American cabinet secretary, began this initiative shortly after taking office. The term “squaw” is one that became derogatory over time and was used extensively. Squaw Valley, the site of the 1960 Winter Olympics, is now known as Olympic Valley. (3) 

Most people go no farther than the Six Nations for ownership of what became Tioga County, but the Six Nations are relative newcomers. Richard Carlson from Cornell University prepared a survey of historic resources from the Newark Valley Historical Society in 1994. He was in the graduate program in Historic Preservation Planning. (4) Using information from a book by William A. Ritchie Archeology of New York State (1965) he listed these periods of habitation: Paleo-Indian (8000 BC – 5000 BC); Archaic (3500 BC – 1300 BC); Transitional (1300 BC – 1000 BC); and Woodland (1000 BC – 1600 AD). The Woodland period was characterized by agriculture, which brought about settled villages. Another source listed 10 different village sites in what became the Town of Newark Valley. (5) 

The first recognizable tribes to inhabit this general area were the Susquehannocks. They were mentioned by Samuel Champlain in 1615 as being in a strongly fortified camp named Carantouan (near present day Waverly) with 800 warriors. This area has now become known as Spanish Hill.

The Six Nations Confederacy formed around 1550, but by the early 1600’s began to expand its influence, as the beaver trade became the way to acquire European trade goods. In 1673-74 the Susquehannocks were pushed back to their home bases in Pennsylvania and Maryland, largely by the Onondaga and Cayuga.  

Going into the 1700’s, the Susquehannocks followed the same fate as hundreds of other Native American tribes. The numbers kept dropping from disease, warfare, and settler encroachment. The Paxton Boys wiped out their last villages in 1763 whereupon the remnants sought sanctuary with other tribes. There was an effort to establish a reservation for them in Pennsylvania in 1941, but the governor vetoed it at the time. There are some partial Susquehannock ancestors amongst the Seneca-Cayuga Tribe in Oklahoma, but the name does live on in Pennsylvania. There is a Susquehannock High School and a Susquehannock State Park.  

During the American Revolution there probably wasn’t any state that can equal ours for battles, skirmishes, raids, etc. The Clinton-Sullivan Campaign was the one that had a direct impact on what became known as Tioga County, but the entire Southern Tier was enveloped.

The demographic makeup of this area during that time period is one I find fascinating. Otsiningo, just up the river from Binghamton and now a park, had several different Indian groups residing there. Onaquaga, now Windsor, had representatives from the Six Nations along with loyalists and the Nanticoke. What was the makeup of the village here in Owego (Owagea), which consisted of 20 longhouses? How many tribes were represented? Did it have any Loyalists, escaped slaves? (6) It had been abandoned and was destroyed Aug. 19-20, 1779 by a combination of Gen. Clinton’s army, which had come down the Susquehanna from Otsego Lake, and a detachment from Gen. Sullivan’s army under the command of Gen. Poor.  

This rise in Native American consciousness stems from the 1960’s which also produced a variety of other social justice movements. Just as the 1840’s became a wellspring for abolition of slavery, women’s rights, education reform, prison reform and labor unions, the decade of the 1960’s brought us anti-war organizations (largely because of the war in Vietnam), a surge in feminism, the Red Power Movement, environmental advocacy, and greater recognition and rights for the LGBTQ  community. (7) The Red Power Movement would bring about the Occupation of Alcatraz (1969-71), the Trail of Broken Treaties (1972), and the Occupation of Wounded Knee (1973).  

As I stated earlier, we are in the midst of a major realignment of historical interpretation and assessment. (8) It is picking up steam at a dizzying pace and we are not alone. Just look at how many Brits now view the monarchy with displeasure along with a host of former colonies that had become part of the Commonwealth.

The removal of many of the Civil War statues south of the Mason-Dixon Line exemplifies this. Military bases are being renamed. (9) A bust of Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest was placed at the Capitol Building in Tennessee in 1973. It generated controversy from the very beginning because Forrest was an early leader of the KKK and ordered the massacre of Union troops who were attempting to surrender at Fort Pillow, Tennessee in 1864. Many of these troops were African-American. The bust was removed in July 2021. 

There are 12 Presidents who were slaveholders. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson had up to 600 each. Jefferson, author of “inalienable rights” “all men are created equal” “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” to his dying day did not believe that black people were the equal of whites, even though he fathered a number of children from his black mistress. (10) Three states have proposed banning the inclusion of the 1619 Project from public school classrooms. 

Getting back to the Revolutionary War (which was really America’s first civil war), the Six Nations are portrayed as the “blood thirsty” enemy of the colonists. This war not only split colonists into rebels and loyalists, it did the same among native peoples as well. The Confederacy itself became a victim. It was only recently that I learned that the Oneida and Tuscorora fought with the rebels. At the Battle of Barren Hill in 1778 in Pennsylvania, the Oneida scouts were instrumental in keeping the Marquis de Lafayette from being captured by the British. (11) 

Another war that needs some reinterpretation is the Spanish-American War. Emilio Aguinaldo was a Filipino revolutionary who fought against the Spanish and then helped American forces achieve final victory. When he realized that the U.S. was going to turn the Philippines into a colony, he turned against his former allies. This war was very controversial, resulted in many more deaths, lasted much longer and has been compared to the Vietnam War, which occurred 60 years later. (12) 

One victim of vigilante justice from the mid-1950s was Emmett Louis Till (1941-1955). He was an African-American boy who was abducted, tortured and lynched in Mississippi after being accused of insulting a white woman, Carolyn Bryant. (13) The two men who committed the murders were acquitted shortly afterward, even though they admitted to the murder for an interview in Look magazine in 1956.

The murder became a catalyst for the next phase of the civil rights struggle. An Emmett Till Memorial Commission was established in the early part of the 21st century. Many of the signs that the Commission has created relating to Emmett Till’s life and death have been vandalized. The Emmett Till Anti-lynching Act, making lynching a hate crime under federal law, was signed by President Biden on March 29, 2022.  

Fr. James Coyle (1873-1921) was a Catholic priest murdered by a Methodist Episcopal minister, E. R. Stephenson, in Birmingham, Alabama. Stephenson was enraged because Fr. Coyle had performed a marriage between Stephenson’s daughter and Pedro Gussman, a Puerto Rican. Stephenson was a member of the Ku Klux Klan. He was declared innocent at his trial on the basis of “self-defense” and temporary insanity. In 2012 a service of reconciliation and forgiveness was conducted at Highlands Methodist Church in Birmingham. In 2021, the 100th anniversary of the murder, a memorial mass was held in Coyle’s honor at St. Paul’s Cathedral. 

Although lynching or vigilante justice was largely a Southern phenomenon, these acts of terror also occurred in the North. One case involved a Black man in Port Jervis, N.Y., Robert Lewis. He was accused of beating and sexually assaulting a young white woman by the name of Lena McMahon. On June 2, 1892 he was beaten by a mob and hung from a tree until dead. A crowd of 2,000 came to watch. Before being killed he admitted to the crime, but said that Lena’s white boyfriend had been an accomplice. On June 2, 2023, a plaque was revealed in Port Jervis memorializing this event. (14) 

Going on the assumption that students in Tioga County learn about the rise of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920’s when it became a major force in U.S. politics and culture, is there any effort to incorporate the Klan activities in this county? Several Eastern European families, including my Polish grandfather, had crosses burnt on their properties. One Eastern European family was the victim of vandalism. An Irish immigrant in Montrose, Pa. got similar treatment. (15) 

Acknowledging local Klan activity became very controversial in 1993. It stemmed from a brochure that the Broome County Chamber of Commerce distributed which listed important dates in Broome County history, one of which was Binghamton being the New York State headquarters for the Klan in 1924-25. Derrick Span, director of the Urban League, at the time, viewed this as offensive and strongly felt that it should be removed. Leonard James, president of the Chamber, defended the entry, saying that this was an important event and that history should not be “whitewashed”. Gerald Smith, the county historian at the time, agreed with him.

I wrote a Letter to the Editor supporting this viewpoint as well, although it was never printed. The Chamber caved in to this pressure in about two weeks, but it did spark a variety of Guest Viewpoints and LTE’s in the Press and Sun-Bulletin for about four months.  

Regarding the “Appeal to the Great Spirit” statue which has a prominent place in the OFA lobby, I had not given this much thought until I read what Joan Davis had to say about it (Pennysaver, May 7, pg. 20). I had viewed this statute generally in a positive light, but now realize that it conveys the tragedy and subjugation of Native Americans rather than being something that promotes their resilience and pride. If it is agreed to replace this statue, I’m sure that there are more uplifting representations of Native Americans that can take its place.  

For many of the presentations that I have attended in recent years, the introduction often includes a reference to the Native peoples that were here prior to white settlement. I view this as being a positive sign, but in many respects falls into the category of “native washing”. If you really want to honor the Native heritage of an area, it takes more than a brief two-minute reference.

In regards to the mascot controversy, should this be entirely left up to the Six Nations? Could it still be the Owego Indians: Home of the Susquehannocks? Food for thought.  

1. The term “Iroquois” is actually a derogatory term that was given to the Confederacy not by white settlers but by another Native American tribe, the Huron (who now wish to be called Wyandot or Wendat).

2. Why would you want to be known by the name of an English lord from the other side of the ocean? 

3. There is a hamlet in the Catskills known as Big Indian and a mountain by the same name. It would seem that these names deserve a revamp. 

4. The exact title was “Reconnaissance Level Survey of Historic Resources.” [Town and Village of Newark Valley, Tioga County, New York] 

5. Parker, Arthur C. “The Archeological History of New York”. New York State Museum Bulletin (1920)

6. There were two prisoners taken at the Battle of Newtown on Aug. 29, 1779: a Tory and a “Negro”. 

7. The change in nomenclature was extensive. Instead of Miss or Mrs. it was now Ms. [Ms. Magazine starts in 1971]. Negro and colored were no longer acceptable terms replaced by Black or Afro American or African-American. Individuals changed their names: Malcolm Little became Malcolm X; Everett Leroy Jones became Amiri Baraka. However, two organizations decided to keep the old terminology: NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) and UNCF (United Negro College Fund). 

8. The first major realignment that I personally came to when reading The Autobiography of Malcolm in the late 1960’s.  

9. Fort Benning is now Fort Moore. Fort Hood is now Fort Cavazos. 

10. JSTOR: Jefferson’s conclusion on the race issue was tentative but chilling, “I advance it therefore as a suspicion only, that the blacks, whether originally a distinct race or made distinct by time and circumstance, are inferior to the whites in the endowments both of body and mind.” (1787/1954, p.  143) 

11. Read Forgotten Allies (The Oneida Indians and the American Revolution). Joseph T. Glatthaar and James Kirby Martin, 2006. 

12. This war is referred to as the Philippine-American War or the Philippine Insurrection. 

13. Carolyn Bryant, whose testimony in court helped the killers escape judgment, died last month at the age of 88 (April 28, 2023).  

14. Coming up with an exact number of lynchings is not a straightforward process. According to Wikipedia, using the dates of 1883 to 1941, there were 4,467 victims. Of these, 3,265 were black, 1,082 were white, 71 were Mexican, and 38 were Native American. The two largest mass lynchings were 19 Chinese in Los Angeles in 1871 and 11 Italians in New Orleans in 1891. 

15. The Irish immigrant also had a bag of snakes left on his porch. One newspaper noted that so many crosses were being burnt in the county; it wasn’t worth reporting as news any more.

1 Comment on "Guest Editorial: The Owego Indian Mascot Controversy; A Harbinger of Things to Come"

  1. IT’S ABOUT TIME!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

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