UTICA, Ohio — On a warm Friday night in September in Midwestern farm country, Neil Snelling rests his elbows on top of a chain link fence in his usual spot beside the bleachers lining the home team’s side of his alma mater’s football field.
Snelling has stood behind the students at Utica High School in one form or another since his graduation in 1974 — at different times as an assistant baseball coach, a football team statistician, a school board member, a booster club president, co-founder of the school’s athletic hall of fame and, for the past 18 years, a substitute teacher.
He’s surrounded by the instantly recognizable ingredients of a particular American nostalgia: stadium lights bouncing off a sea of helmets, the beat of a small marching band and the smell of cut grass emanating from the same field where his classmates used to play nearly a half-century earlier. The details of those elements in Utica, however, make it an increasingly rare version of a familiar scene. The light bouncing off helmets highlights the feathered headdress decals framing the home team’s face masks. The band is playing a rendition of Florida State’s “War Chant.” And the text striped across the top of the press box over Snelling’s shoulder welcomes the home crowd to Redskin Stadium.
“Being a Redskin is a big part of my identity,” said Snelling, a 67-year-old who has lived in Utica most of his life.
It’s homecoming weekend, and Utica is hosting Indian Creek — making the game one of the few sporting contests in the country this season to feature two teams that still use the contentious name. The word is defined in dictionaries as a contemptuous term, is deemed offensive by an overwhelming majority of Native American groups, and is among the names found by national organizations of psychologists and sociologists to be harmful. ESPN’s editorial policy is not to use the term, except in rare instances. It is used sparingly and selectively in this piece.
Not a single professional or college team in the United States still has the name. The National Football League’s Washington franchise ditched it in 2020, called itself the Washington Football Team for two seasons and this year adopted “Commanders” as its nickname. Miami University of Ohio changed its nickname to the RedHawks 25 years ago.
But 37 high schools across 18 states still use the word, according to data from the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI), a nonprofit organization representing tribal governments and communities, as well as the websites MascotDB and PeopleNotMascots and reporting by ESPN. “We’ve had millions of Natives brutally murdered across this country,” NCAI president Fawn Sharp told ESPN. “And other people celebrating that, it’s absolutely repulsive. It’s disgusting.”
The number of high schools using the word dropped from nearly 100 in the early 1990s to 63 a decade ago. ESPN reached out to the current 37 schools and most did not respond or declined to comment. Of the 13 schools that did reply, two (Alabama School for the Blind and Canisteo-Greenwood in New York) said they’re having discussions about a possible nickname change. A third, which is on tribal land in Wellpinit, Washington, told ESPN on Oct. 25 a decision was made this year to stop using the nickname, but it would not provide additional information. The nickname still appears on Wellpinit High’s website.
Three high schools with the nickname besides Wellpinit are on tribal lands. Rush Springs in Oklahoma did not respond to ESPN’s emails and calls. The other two — Red Mesa in Arizona and Kingston in Oklahoma — said the tribal nations upon whose lands the schools operate support the nickname. “We know this is an incremental process,” said NCAI executive director Larry Wright Jr. “When using the ‘R-word,’ we think that has a different connotation than other words used by tribal nations, but out of respect for tribal sovereignty, we defer to those nations.”
Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez told ESPN he would not address the nickname at Red Mesa, which is on Navajo territory — he said the matter is up to the school and its community. But Nez also noted that the Nation is on record as opposing disparaging references by professional teams to Native Americans.
Two other high schools that are not included among the 37 started planning a change. Morris in Illinois set a 2025 date to implement a new nickname, while Sandusky in Michigan is exploring possibilities for its new nickname and for funding.
Nine of the 37 high schools that still use the nickname are in Ohio, more than double the number in any other state. In the 2020 Census, 0.26% of Ohioans identified themselves as American Indian/Alaska Native alone. Pennsylvania, New Hampshire and West Virginia were the only states with a lower percentage. Two high schools in Pennsylvania (Neshaminy and Sayre), one in West Virginia (Hurricane) and none in New Hampshire currently use the name.
John Low, a citizen of the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi and a history professor at the Ohio State University branch in Newark — about 13 miles from Utica — said the combination of a small Native population and prominence of offensive nicknames is no coincidence.
“There aren’t any Indians in Utica as far as I know,” Low said. “There is no one there to challenge it.”
Low teaches a course on American Indian history, which has included a lecture each semester on the use of racist or offensive terminology in sports. He said sports mascots propagate a misleading image of his ancestors as one-dimensional, bloodthirsty warriors. That cartoonish depiction, Low said, is starkly contrasted by the massive and mathematically precise earth mounds that remain intact today just 20 minutes south of where Indian Creek and Utica played their game. Hopewell era tribes built the mounds more than 2,000 years ago to mark sacred ground, track lunar cycles and serve as a meeting place for a variety of gatherings. Low said preserving those areas is a far better way to honor his ancestors than by naming a sports team with an offensive term.
The word appears in historical records dating back to the mid-1700s and for more than a century pertained to bounties on indigenous people. Jamie Stuck, chairperson of Michigan’s Native American Heritage Fund, said his tribe’s forebears were forced out of the state in the wake of President Andrew Jackson’s 1830 Indian Removal Act and that published rewards of $55 a head incentivized for uprooting tribespeople. Some escaped capture and returned, but many Native Americans who resisted forced resettlement were killed.
“That mascot name has a lot of historic trauma for our people,” Stuck said. “Their lives were taken by the hands of army soldiers, and ways that they would prove that there was another dead ancestor was by their skins, hence the name.”
Snelling, sitting inside a science classroom at the high school, said he understands that many Native Americans are offended by the word. Like others at Utica and Indian Creek and schools from around the country that use it, Snelling said his intent has never been to disparage American Indians but to try to honor them. He said he associates the word with positive qualities that he wants his community to emulate: strength, nobility and a fighting spirit.
An administrator from a different Ohio school district that uses the nickname said, “From the time I was a kid, the idea of Redskins is that if you show up at a football game, it’s going to be a war. I never remotely thought of it as a mascot with anything other than a lot of fortitude.”
Low said the tendency to reduce a complex, diverse culture into one that is only represented today by war is the main reason it’s offensive, not an honor, for schools to use the word. The Ohio school district administrator, who requested anonymity due to a concern that national media attention could interfere with careful consideration of a change, said, “Maybe it’s time to make an adjustment to something more favorable … we’re trying to work to be more inclusive.”
In the winter of 2021, roughly six months after pressure from corporate sponsors prompted the NFL team in Washington to drop its nickname, Utica’s school board held a discussion on whether to consider doing the same.
Other schools in several states reacted to the NFL team’s controversy over the past decade by holding similar discussions. Saranac, Michigan Community Schools superintendent Jason Smith said his district decided in 2020 it would switch to Red Hawks, after Washington announced a change.
“The board was ready to relook at that and thought, ‘Now’s the time to do this,'” Smith said. “I don’t know if there’s anything [that precipitated the change] specifically outside, truly, of the Washington football team making that announcement — I think that was quite eye-opening.”
The change went into effect this August, when the Red Hawks opened their girls’ volleyball season with a victory over the Belding Black Knights, another Michigan school that has dropped the nickname in the past five years. Belding superintendent Brent Noskey told ESPN he pushed for the move after learning more about the history of the word in 2016.
“There were bounties for deer skin and rabbit skin and Redskin,” Noskey said. “It’s quite discouraging to know that we would then take it and use it as a mascot for schools. … We’re moving forward in our history, we’re not going to honor mistakes that our ancestors made, we’re not going to use terms that have such a derogatory connotation for the group of people that suffered such great losses.”
Snelling, who was at the time a member of the Utica school board in the town of 2,050 people, said he also researched the history of his school’s name prior to the 2021 meeting to discuss exploring options. He found that the high school had used it since the 1930s. He said the school had used mascots or other imagery (such as the football team running onto the field through a teepee) that have since gone away. While he said that cartoonish representations of native warriors are inappropriate, he also said he believes words can evolve if Native American culture is treated with respect.
A pair of current athletes at the school — senior football players Hayden Smith and Jaydin White — said they also hoped to hold on to the nickname. They said a few of their classmates think it is racist, but the conversation about it does not come up often.
“Some people are going to be mad if we keep it. Some people are going to be mad if we change it,” Smith said. “If people are going to be mad either way, we’d rather keep it.”
In 2021, the Utica school board voted 5-0 to end any discussion of a change. Farrah Cooperider, school board president since 2020, said the topic “fired up” the community and she doesn’t think any further discussion is imminent.
“If the community wants it, if the community would come to us, we’d look into it.” Cooperider said.
School boards are the bodies responsible for determining team nicknames in Ohio. Legislators in the state and elsewhere have tried to pass laws that take that decision out of the hands of local communities and ban offensive high school team nicknames. Seven years ago, California, where four high schools had the nickname, became the only state to officially ban its use. The California Racial Mascots Act signed into law by then-Gov. Jerry Brown called for public schools to phase out the nickname and mascot by Jan. 1, 2017.
Ohio legislators Adam Miller and Jessica Miranda proposed a resolution a year ago encouraging schools to “retire the use of Native American mascots and engage Native American groups as part of that process.” The lawmakers cited Ohio High School Athletic Association data from the previous June that appeared in the Columbus Dispatch and showed 79 high schools had Native American nicknames and mascots, including 24 with “Indians,” 11 “Redskins” and five “Redmen.” Others included “Apaches,” “Arrows,” “Braves,” “Chieftains,” “Chipps,” “Mohawks,” “Raiders,” “Seminoles,” “Senecas” and “Warriors.”
In a recent statement to ESPN, Miranda expressed disappointment that the relevant committee in the state’s House of Representatives has not had any hearings on the proposal. Cooperider said one obstacle school districts face when considering change is the extensive costs associated with rebranding a school, which can climb into the hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Saranac, Belding and several other Michigan school districts received Native American Heritage Fund assistance with the costs of their rebranding.
In 2015, a month after California passed its law, Adidas launched a program to help high schools transition away from Native American nicknames and mascots. The company said it would provide schools with new logos at no cost and new uniforms at discounted rates. But despite being lauded by then-President Barack Obama when it was first announced, the Adidas initiative fizzled.
“I was absolutely astonished at how few inquiries we had,” former Adidas executive Mark Daniels told ESPN. “I don’t think the nation was at a point where this was going to be embraced at the time. I think the national conscience has been raised in the last seven years and I absolutely think Black Lives Matter and George Floyd was the impetus that really sparked that. And I think that has a halo effect on other issues.”
Contemporaneous news reports about schools’ consideration of the Adidas offer indicated the company required commitments to multiyear deals, and that was a deterrent for some.
Paul Ehrlich, the company’s general counsel for Global Brands & Americas, conceived the project. Adidas declined ESPN requests for information on his brainchild and an interview with him.
Despite few tangible results, the Adidas effort was a significant milestone, Ray Halbritter, leader of the Oneida Indian Nation, said. “That Adidas — such a high-profile sports and apparel company — saw that there was not a political or consumer downside to coming out against this, that said something. These companies don’t usually make these moves without feeling that they are on safe ground.”
“Adidas would never have made such a decision without a culture shift that the efforts of Native American organizations helped bring about,” added Halbritter.
But the political climate in recent years has, for some, hardened their resistance to making a change. Snelling said many of the people in Utica who want to keep the high school’s nickname are reluctant to allow outside influence to have an impact on their community.
“An outsider telling us what to do doesn’t rub us the right way,” Snelling said.
The NCAI, which has been advocating for nickname changes since 1968, says both the NFL and the Washington Commanders could have done much more in the past two years to use their influence to urge others to drop it. An apology and a clear statement that it was wrong to use the word would have gone a long way, according to NCAI president Sharp.
“There was no owning it, there was no, ‘That was a bad chapter,'” Sharp said. “Instead, they [Washington] took that moment in opportunity and said, ‘We’ll always for that era be known as that name.’ And so, what kind of message does that send to kids in high school?”
ESPN attempted to contact Commanders officials about the team’s handling of the nickname change and received no reply.
At a rally outside FedEx Field on Oct. 23 in celebration of the franchise’s 90th anniversary, with more than 100 former players present, Commanders co-owner Tanya Snyder told the crowd, “Hail to the Redskins, and let’s beat Green Bay!” And team president Jason Wright said, “Hail to the Skins, and hail to the Commanders.”
Krista Stockman, a communications director who helped guide her school district in Fort Wayne, Indiana, through a nickname change seven years ago, said getting through the emotional connections and traditions that the community attached to the name was a big part of what made a change so difficult.
“There are always going to be emotions tied to it and people who feel very strongly on both sides,” Stockman said. “And I think, as we made that transition, one of the things that was important for us to say was, ‘Changing the mascot does not erase the school’s history, it does not erase the school’s traditions.’
“Part of our core values is that we respect one another, we honor one another, we honor our differences, we celebrate our diversity and this is truly offensive to people and we just can’t do that anymore,” Stockman added.
In Utica, however, some argue there is virtue in maintaining the status quo. Bernie Snow, another former member of the school board who has helped take tickets at the high school football games since the 1980s, said he was disappointed when the Washington Commanders and the Miami RedHawks changed their nicknames because he feels they were caving to outside pressure. Snow said in a small town like Utica it was important to hold tight to things that tied them to their past.
When asked why changing the name would strip away the history and tradition of the school and town, Snow said: “It wouldn’t feel the same,” he said. “I’m older, I don’t like change.”
Change may be coming to places like Utica, nonetheless.
Both Utica and Indian Creek have started to shed some of the Native American imagery from their campuses and merchandise in recent years.
Several Indian Creek fans said the school removed the word from its home field press box a few years ago, and many of the T-shirts and hats that fans wore in the visiting stands at Utica said “Creek” rather than showing a mascot or nickname. When Utica refinished the basketball floor in its gym several years ago, the school opted to place a large “U” logo at center court rather than the headdress-wearing image it uses as a logo on some school merchandise. Athletic director Brian Radabaugh said the school made that decision in order to avoid the potential cost of removing the mascot logo if it makes a change.
Radabaugh, a 1999 graduate of Utica High, is part of a slightly younger generation of leaders at the two high schools who are not as ardent about keeping the nickname.
Indian Creek High School principal Louie Retton said he wouldn’t be bothered if his school dropped it and he doesn’t think many of the locals would mind either. Indian Creek is a newer school, in the village of Wintersville, formed in the early 1990s when a trio of local towns combined their high schools. Retton said most people in the community, which sits just to the west of the Ohio-West Virginia border, are more concerned with “getting by” than their high school’s nickname.
Radabaugh said in Utica he thinks a change will be considered further at some point, and he would welcome a new nickname if and when the town decides to adopt one.
“It’s probably coming eventually,” he said. “It feels inevitable.”
Perched in his usual spot behind the Utica sideline, Snelling cheers on the students he sees in school as they start to pull away from the visiting team for a decisive victory. He shakes hands with fathers in the stands who he used to coach on the baseball field a generation earlier and introduces them to his wife and son next to him. He says he remains in favor of keeping the school nickname that has become a pillar of his own identity, but that he understands the opposition.
If change does come to Utica and the team mascot is retired, Snelling said he will still spend his Friday nights standing behind the football team’s sideline and the rest of his time searching for ways to support his town.
“As long as it’s something that reflects our community,” he said, “I’d be OK with it.”