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Update 1/8/16: On January 11, 2016, the village of Whitesboro will vote on whether or not to keep the controversial seal.
Update 1/12/16: In an informal vote, 157 villagers informally voted to keep current, controversial image on January 11, 2016. There were 212 votes cast in total.
In the weeks following the mass shooting at a historic black church in Charleston, South Carolina, there has been a debate in this country surrounding the prevalence of the Confederate flag in certain regions of the U.S. On Monday, the South Carolina Senate voted 37-to-3 to remove the controversial banner from the grounds of its State House. For some Americans, the flag is said to serve as a symbol of Southern pride; for others it’s an unwelcome reminder of this country’s bloody legacy of slavery, racism, and white supremacy.
Now, sparked by the recent dialogue, some are reigniting the debate around yet another longstanding and controversial symbol: the seal of Whitesboro, New York.
A small village near the Mohawk River in Oneida County, Whitesboro, along with the larger municipality of Whitestown, was founded in the late 1700s by settler Hugh White. According to the village’s website, the seal depicts White grappling with a Native American during a “friendly wrestling match.” But the way the image is framed — with White’s hands close to his opponent’s neck, the Native American being forced toward the ground in apparent submission — has some calling the emblem offensive and racist.
Twitter was flooded late last month with images of the seal, at times accompanied by hashtags like #TakeItDown, #ChangeTheSeal, and #NotTheOnion. A petition to replace the emblem — which appears on Whitesboro vehicles, highway equipment, documents, and letterhead — has been posted on Change.org. The petition currently has 250 supporters.
Is it just me, or should Whitesboro, New York, maybe change its seal? pic.twitter.com/SUkZ6ZZkr6
— Aura Bogado (@aurabogado) June 25, 2015
Upstate new york MAD more racist than the south https://t.co/r6DRwoK8vL
— Desus Nice (@desusnice) June 25, 2015
— Natalie Morales (@nataliemorales) June 25, 2015
— Christopher Ingraham (@_cingraham) June 25, 2015
“The first thought that anyone has of this image is, ‘There’s some white guy killing an Indian, strangling an Indian,’?” Cliff Matias, director of the Redhawk Native American Arts Council in Brooklyn, tells the Voice. “It’s saying, ‘Well, they didn’t just conquer and defeat the people, but they also beat them in a wrestling match.’ It’s utterly ridiculous that a town would have pride in a symbol like that in this day and age.”
Whitesboro was sued over the seal by a Native American group in the 1970s, according to a 2009 article in the Utica Observer-Dispatch.
As a result, the village changed the image so that its founder’s hands were on the Native American’s shoulders — rather than up by his neck — but ultimately kept the seal intact. Joseph Malecki, a former mayor of Whitesboro, also once suggested changing the emblem, though the plan never came to fruition.
— ©̸ Sam Klein ❦ (@metasj) July 3, 2015
But despite the criticism, Whitesboro village officials maintain that the wrestling match was an important event in the village’s history and helped build relations between White and the area’s Native American population.
“I am aware that people are upset about it,” says Whitesboro mayor Patrick O’Connor. “Some have reached out directly to me through my village email. And if they looked at the seal and went with an opinion based solely on what they’re looking at, I could understand why people would have concern about it. But, [as with] everything else, I think you have to take all the facts into consideration. And if people take the time to do that and they reach out to us, or they do the research themselves, it’s actually a very accurate depiction of friendly wrestling matches that took place back in those days.”
O’Connor says he has not consulted with Native American organizations on the seal since taking office in April of 2014, but cites the Observer-Dispatch article, in which a representative of the Oneida Nation Council Turtle Clan argued that the image was not offensive.
The village’s website — which at times refers to Native Americans as “Indians,” and once as White’s “red neighbors” — does indeed paint the wrestling match as an act of heroism and valor on the part of its founder, with White accepting a challenge from an Oneida chief in order to gain respect and strengthen ties.
“He accepted the challenge, took hold of the Indian and by a fortunate trip, succeeded almost instantly in throwing him. As he saw him falling, in order to prevent another challenge, he fell upon the Indian for an instant and it was some moments before he could rise,” the site reads. “When the Indian finally rose, he shrugged his shoulders and was said to have muttered ‘UGH, you good fellow too much.’ Hugh White became a hero in the eyes of the Oneida Indians.”
But even if one is to take the story at face value — believing that there was a friendly wrestling match won by White that earned him respect among the area’s native people — some still point to a power dynamic that appears to favor colonialism in both the presented narrative and the image on the seal.
“I think that in America there’s a certain nostalgic sort of idea that’s been created about Native Americans, particularly in places where there aren’t large populations or communities,” Matias says. “This has become this absolutely ridiculous idea that by using a Native American it’s talking about strength and honor.”
Still, in recent years it seems that the nation has gradually become more sensitive to such issues. There has been a growing movement to do away with the name of the Washington Redskins, a term largely considered to be a racial epithet against Native Americans. Last week, news broke that the Obama administration would likely block the NFL team’s move into the actual District if the name was not altered.
Social media has often been a driving force in these conversations, with the use of hashtags like #ChangeTheName and Facebook groups like Eradicating Offensive Native Mascotry serving as an outlet for debate.
“These kinds of discussions about visual imagery in the popular realm are very, very different today,” says Mario Caro, the associate director of the American Indian Program at Cornell University. “Now you have the internet giving voice. While the voice of the native here was very much regulated by and condoned by the Village of Whitesboro, the way in which this image and narratives about it are contextualized within social media is totally different. It’s native folks who are then able to respond and recontextualize that image.”
But even with all the cries of racism and insensitivity, Whitesboro seems unlikely to change the seal any time soon.
“It’s equally as big a deal to the people that have called Whitesboro home over the course of the last 200 years,” O’Connor says. “I would argue that you will find supporters to change the seal and you will find supporters to keep the seal. It absolutely is not meant as a sign of disrespect, and, as you look at the seal in totality, with the story that the seal represents, I don’t believe that it’s offensive.”
Still, regardless of what the history behind the image may be — and despite all the explaining it takes — the context and perception of the Whitesboro seal remains bitterly offensive to some.
“Let’s take off all the whitewash and get down to the nitty-gritty of this thing,” Matias says. “We know, they know, and everyone else knows that this symbol is absolutely preposterous. It’s racist in every sense of its form, and the use of it is ridiculous. ”