Orland: Village vote to keep Whitesboro, N.Y. seal contributes to institutional racism against Native Americans

The residents of a New York town were given an opportunity to leave their mark on history, but they respectfully declined.

The townspeople of Whitesboro, a small village about an hour east of Syracuse, voted on their controversial town seal earlier this month. The results came out in favor of the current seal with 75 percent of voters opting to keep it as is.

Described on the town’s website as a friendly wrestling match, the seal in question depicts the town’s founder, Hugh White, toppling over a Native American. The town has continued to defend the seal as a historical moment in which neighboring relations were fostered. But spurring criticism from outsiders and even satirical late-night TV hosts, the tensions surrounding this issue are particularly high and rightfully so.

At its core, the seal is racist and the town voted to keep it out of their loyalty to history, not to morality. The situation in Whitesboro, while primarily focused on the seal itself, should trigger a conversation about a much larger problem: using the power of the change to challenge prejudice and injustice facing Native Americans. The changing of the seal will aid in creating better perceptions of indigenous peoples, but the true actions that perpetuate racism have yet to be dealt with.

The happenings in Whitesboro seem to be a perfect example of the larger problem of recognizing, accepting and dispelling the stereotypes and second-class treatment that affect the people who were here first.

Scott Manning Stevens, director of the Native American studies program at Syracuse University, sees the lack of understanding of racism toward Native Americans that stems from the notion that they are a people from another era.

“Native people had been consigned to the past — conquered, wiped out, removed, et cetera. No one expected us to raise our voices in protest anymore than one expected to hear from the Vikings or buccaneers of the distant past,” Stevens said. “But here we are — still here, and no thank you, we don’t want to be your mascots.”

The discussion goes far beyond tangible seals and mascots. The real problems are left on the table and under a pile of papers. There have been whispers, if not muffled screams, for decades and centuries, to start the dialogue on redressing the mistreatment of Native Americans.

Part of the United States’ ignorance relates back to what Stevens said about Native Americans being perceived as people of the past. However, in the back of America’s mind, there has always been a sense of guilt that has permeated all socially-conscious citizens.

This was seen earlier this month, in Leonardo DiCaprio’s acceptance speech for his Golden Globe for best actor in a drama when he acknowledged the indigenous peoples he worked with on “The Revenant,” telling them that, “It is time that we recognize your history … It is time that we heard your voice.”

The same discourse has emerged from other aspects of popular culture, including the controversy surrounding the Washington Redskins and the Cleveland Indians for their culturally-appropriated names, mascots and logos. Even the celebration of Columbus Day has caused some individuals to push for a shift in honoring Native Americans, rather than the man who slaughtered them, by reclaiming the day as “Indigenous Peoples Day.”

So while the debate about changing town seals, team names and removing flags from state capitols should continue, notice what is not being said, and that is where change can occur.

“Oppression is most manifested in what is not talked about,” said Spencer Piston, an assistant political science professor in SU’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs.

The events that spark so much discussion: the Whitesboro ordeal, the Washington Redskins, even problems like removing the confederate flag from South Carolina’s capital, are just manifestations of larger problems that are not discussed, including racism.

Changing the entire societal narrative is a fight many may not want to participate in because there seems to be no end in sight in the near future, as institutional discrimination is not easily undone.

Despite the flag coming down in South Carolina, the racism is still there, true systemic change has not occurred and people still cling tightly to history. The meaning that Americans attach to the name of their favorite football team, the seal of their town or the flag of their ancestors, takes precedent over the inherent oppression that comes along with them.

But having tangible results come out of discussing the aforementioned problems make these conversations the ones that yield social progress — a conversation Whitesboro can contribute to by moving to change its seal.

Joanna Orland is a freshman newspaper and online journalism major. Her column appears weekly. She can be reached at


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