On Sept. 5, the Owego-Apalachin School District announced, via a press release, that the district would transition from their long-time mascot, the Indian, to a new mascot, the River Hawk.
Going forward, OA Schools will begin a logo design and rebranding process, and stated, via their press release, “The district received numerous ideas during the polling process. We have started working on a professional design and will continue to engage our committees and school community as we progress.”
The District also stated, “The traditional Red and Blue will remain, and the colors will be incorporated into a design that reflects the collective identity and values of the District and our community as a whole.”
The “Appeal to the Great Spirit” statue, and for years prominently displayed in the OFA lobby, has since been relocated. It is now surrounded by other Haudenosaunee collection pieces showcased at the school, and located near the Reppert Gymnasium.
The decision to retire the Indian mascot was driven by a previous New York State Department of Education ruling that bans the use of Native American nicknames and imagery in educational institutions. Once Districts commit before the academic year ending in 2023, they have until the end of the 2024-2025 academic year to remove and replace the names, logos, and/or imagery. Those who do not adhere to the ruling risk losing funding.
OA Schools Superintendent Dr. Corey Green expressed, in the press release, “Our district is dedicated to creating an environment that fosters respect, understanding, and unity among all students. I’d like to thank the members of our various committees, especially those students and staff who have been the driving force behind gathering and analyzing the thoughts and data collected during this process.”
Two committees worked simultaneously for several months. A student committee guided the process, sought feedback from all stakeholders, and then presented proposals to the Board of Education and the school community.
A community stakeholder committee focused on how to respectfully remember and honor the district’s history within the regulations, and how to continue to teach the historical significance of the area to current and future OA students.
The OA Schools press release continued, in part, “The district remains committed to educating students about the history and cultural contributions of Native American communities while upholding a mascot that unites, respects, and for all.”
As for the River Hawk selection, OA Schools noted that it is a tribute to the region’s connection to the Susquehanna River and the local environment and wildlife, as well as to the indigenous people of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, (the Iroquois of Six Nations).
In Native American culture the hawk symbolizes courage, wisdom and protection, among other attributes.
For the past several years Ospreys, referred to as “River Hawks,” have been nesting within the stadium lights at OFA’s Christy J. Valvo Stadium. Locals have noticed other sightings of the osprey along the Susquehanna, from Apalachin to Owego.
Response to the mascot decision has been mixed. The directive and change has stirred much conversation and emotions surrounding the beloved Owego Indian.
Supporters of keeping the Indian mascot have voiced, “Once an Indian, Always an Indian.”
Some find the middle road, “I’ll always consider myself an Indian, but I respect the tribes.”
Others have expressed, “It’s a cool new name.”
A few have asked, “What’s the cost of all of this?”
And, it’s not just New York State. According to a piece by NPR.org earlier this year, some 1,200 school districts throughout the country are working through the same process.
One of the only known New York State school districts to continue using its nickname and logo, and according to a piece by the Associated Press in May, is located in Salamanca, N.Y. According to the article, leaders of the Seneca Nation allowed the district located on their land to continue using its Warrior nickname, despite New York’s ban.
The Board of Regents had included an exception, “For districts that receive written approval from a federally recognized tribal nation in New York.”
The Associated Press piece indicated that Seneca Nation leaders said the Salamanca district represents the most unique of circumstances because of its location on Allegany Territory, and also since a large population of students and staff are Native American.
1997 OFA graduate Patrick Gavin, and with OA School Board approval, made a good faith effort to contact tribes in hopes of saving Owego’s Indian name and symbol. According to Gavin, five tribes were contacted, although final approval was not granted. Gavin also authored a piece for this publication in January, “Once an Indian, Always an Indian.”
Today, Gavin hopes that the District remains committed to educating students about the history and cultural contributions of Native Americans in our community, including following through on two items. He noted that after the 2011 flood, an American Indian mural was to be painted inside the new OES, along with a display of a wampum belt presented by the Onondaga Nation to the District.
Gavin reminisced, “As the chapter for our beloved Owego Indian closes, I remember the bond that my teammates, classmates and family members will always share, including finishing off my senior year with our school’s first-ever State championship on the baseball diamond,” adding, “I did it with teammates who I remain very close to almost 30 years later, and we did it as Owego INDIANS.”
In the end, community pride and camaraderie, Gavin said, can never be taken away, and despite the changes, “I hope the kids today can do the same thing with the new name.”