That word sits at the center of a public hearing unfolding in Bucks County this week that could cost the Neshaminy School District its decades-old mascot.
The Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission, which sued the district, argues the term is discriminatory — a racial epithet of Native Americans that creates a “hostile educational environment” for Neshaminy students.
The district no longer has a physical mascot, but the word and Native American imagery are used to represent its athletic teams.
The logo for the high school’s basketball team is a profile of a Native American man wearing a feathered headdress. The football team’s helmets say “Skins” on them. And baseball players wear hats with a tomahawk on the front.
“Instead of promoting an atmosphere of inclusiveness and learning, Neshaminy continues to use this racial slur for their mascot name,” said Lisa Knight, who is representing the commission, which is both arguing and ruling on the case.
The school district, which has more than 8,700 students, says the commission’s allegations are “unfounded.”
“The district is full of decent human beings,” countered attorney Craig Ginsburg, who is representing the district. “It’s really unfortunate in this case that they’re being disparaged as racists.”
Monday’s testimony was part court case, part history lesson.
For well over an hour, defense expert Andre Billeaudeaux, part of the Native American Guardians Association’s leadership team, cited example after example of why the word “redskins” is not, on its face, derogatory.
Billeaudeaux, who is not Native American, cited personal conversations with tribe members, national polls, past issues of National Geographic, as well as his own research, included in a self-published children’s book, “How the Redskins Got Their Name.”
In the northeast and other parts of the country, Billeaudeaux said Native Americans had a “red culture,” which included warriors painting their faces and bodies red before battle using a plant called bloodroot.
Those warriors, he said, referred to themselves as redskins.
“It should be treated as a living tradition,” said Billeaudeaux. “It should be treated objectively.”
Billeaudeaux, a former strategist with the U.S. Coast Guard, acknowledged the term could be construed as racist if it’s used in that context, and that the Neshaminy mascot should be improved to accurately reflect the traditions of the Lenni Lenape tribe that lived in Bucks County.
His group has worked to get rid of Native American mascots that are caricatures. The Neshaminy Redskin mascot, however, is not inappropriate on its face, he argued.
“Context matters. Intent matters,” said Billeaudeaux.
“You can misuse the term ‘fruitcake.’ I can give you a fruitcake at Christmas, but if I walk into a mental hospital and I shout out ‘fruitcake,’ that’s offensive because it’s used way out of context. If your name is John, you’re at risk of being thought of as someone who solicits a prostitute,” he said.
Knight, who grilled Billeaudeaux on his qualifications, also challenged his interpretation of the word.
“What are the current dictionary definitions of ‘redskin’ that you’re familiar with?” asked Knight.
“One says it’s offensive,” said Billeaudeaux. “They are stating, at this point, an opinion about how we should feel about it, which is an unusual way for a dictionary to react.”
This week’s hearing is expected to last five days. It’s unclear when a ruling will come.
Carl Summerson, the hearing officer weighing the case, will render the decision. The commission will then vote on that ruling during a public meeting.
Either side can appeal to the Commonwealth Court.
The hearing comes more than three years after the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission sued the Neshaminy School District.
The commission filed the lawsuit after a Neshaminy parent with Native American lineage filed — and later voluntarily withdrew — a complaint with the commission over the district’s use of the mascot.
The commission found the argument laid out in the complaint, also rooted in the educational impact on students, had probable cause.
The long-simmering debate over the district’s mascot made national headlines in 2014 when school officials and the school board battled editors at the high school newspaper The Playwickian.
The editors decided to ban the word “redskins” from articles and editorials because they deemed it racially insensitive.
In response to the student-led ban, the Neshaminy School Board passed a policy that barred editors from removing “redskins” from op-eds, but allowed them to keep it out of news articles.
Disclosure: A Neshaminy High School graduate who works at WHYY was deposed as part of the commission’s case.