By Ryan Cook
The decades-long fight to end the use of Native American “themed” mascots continues on in Bucks County. In the wake of the Washington NFL team’s decision to finally retire the slur “R******s”, the Fightin’ Whites of the Neshaminy School Board have been savagely battling to preserve their long history of white supremacy, colonialism and systemic racism.
On Monday June 7th, the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania overturned the 2019 Pennsylvania Human Rights Commission (PHRC) ruling regarding Neshaminy’s use of the slur. According to Judge Kevin Brobson, an entity such as a school district cannot be held liable for discrimination based on the language in the Pennsylvania Human Rights Act. The 2019 PHRC ruling argued that the team name is a racial slur and the logos and images used are stereotypical and racist. Somehow they also ruled that the district can still use “R******s” as long as it enhances its curriculum on the harms of stereotypes. Despite the weak and contradictory ruling imposed by the PHRC, the school board had already prepared its unanimous appeal of “any decision” 10 days before the ruling was even announced.
School board President Steve Pirritano has long fought to keep the name. He insists Neshaminy’s decision is unique from the NFL team. “And it won’t be based on what is happening with Washington. That’s about corporate pressure and marketing and issues like that, but that’s not the case in Neshaminy. It’s a different situation, and we are different entities,” Pirritano said.
The facts however show that the Washington case and Neshaminy are remarkably similar and the school board is entrenched with the fraudulent right-wing political organization known as the Native American Guardians Association (NAGA). The group has ties to Dan Snyder’s fake charity WROAF, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and other parties interested in silencing or co-opting Native American voices.
Prior to being named Neshaminy, the high school was named “Langhorne-Middletown High School”. The district’s athletic teams have used a variety of names since 1928 but the High School began officially using “R******” in the 1950’s. While the middle schools in the district sometimes use other names, Maple Point Middle School still uses the slur and the shortened version “Skins”.
The word is linked to the history of settlers trading bounties of human skin during the early days of colonialism. Since the 1960’s, hundreds of Native American tribes, advocacy groups and individuals have fought against the use of Native American mascots. However, many schools continue to use these names and mascots. A reactionary coalition of mostly white sports fans, and NAGA has been fighting back against progress.
The students at Neshaminy High School have fought against the use of the slur for decades. In 2001 the student newspaper, The Playwickian published an article “Reading, Writing and Racism” which reflected the opinion of the majority of the student staff. The students addressed the school’s inadequate education on Native American history and its horrific team name:
“Using [R*******] as a name for our school not only trivializes the anguish Native Americans suffered, but also makes the racism toward them seem acceptable due to their utilization in an educational environment.”
“Neshaminy stresses the importance of fostering and maintaining an atmosphere that promotes tolerance and acceptance,” the editorial continues. “However, with [R*******] as a team name, the school is promoting tolerance and acceptance of atrocities performed years ago.”
In 2013 the student editors decided to ban the “R-word” from the Playwickian. In a school board meeting, Pirritano asked what would happen if a student submitted a letter containing the word. Surely enough a letter was submitted by his son a few days later. The editors decided to publish the letter in its entirety but after a long battle with the school board over the students’ preference for a redacted version of the word, the students printed the paper with whitespace in place of the slur.
Robert McGee, principal at the time, roamed the halls and confiscated as many copies of the newspaper as he could from students. In an email Pirritano wrote “This in my opinion also reaches the level of a conspiracy, in any other context except a school environment it would be considered such.” He then went on to threaten to have the students prosecuted:
“My statement reflects that view and in my opinion a police investigation should have taken place. It also reflects my personal philosophy that taxpayers should not be on the hook for such acts and I made that known to the public that attended our meetings as well as received comments from the public that they supported such investigation.”
Donna Fann-Boyle, who is Choctaw and Cherokee, has lived in Neshaminy School District since 1996. She has been challenging the district’s racist nickname and stereotypical imagery since 2012. Her oldest son graduated from Neshaminy High School in 2000 and her youngest son became a freshman at the school in 2012 with the same slur and imagery mocking their culture. The PHRC agreed with Donna’s testimony that this created a hostile learning environment. Donna has faced harassment online and in real life from those opposed to the name change. She did not want her son to speak at the school board meetings for fear of harassment or retaliation. Despite Donna’s testimony, the PHRC concluded that “no evidence” was presented any “Native American student or students were harmed by the use of the word “R*******”.
Neshaminy’s school board doesn’t believe the PHRC has the authority to require them to educate students on the harms of stereotyping. Their appeal against the PHRC ruling consisted of the usual blame-shifting and gaslighting the school board has engaged in for decades. The school board has tried to claim victimhood by blaming the Human Rights Commision for “demonizing” the district and making “unsubstantiated allegations of racism”. The district claims their appeal was based on their effort to “teach students to think independently as opposed to indoctrinating them with certain points of view”.
The reality is unfortunately just the opposite and the school board is clearly indoctrinated with radical far-right conspiracies as illustrated by Pirritano’s comments last year regarding Black Lives Matter:
“BLM is a Marxist, anti family, anti American organization. Their mission statement says it all. You want to stand up for Life that’s a all encompassing position. BLM is a racial organization that wants nothing to do with inclusion.”
Students have started petitions to get Pirritano fired for his racism, but he remains President of the school board. The district is still using “Skins” and “R******” and they have done nothing to fulfill the requirement to educate students on the harms of stereotyping. While the district has spent $425K defending the slur, they use “expenses” as part of their excuse for not educating students on the harms of stereotyping and will only consult with the paid spokespeople of NAGA, whom the school board has helped raise money for.
While many fans consciously believe they are “honoring” Native Americans, there is research suggesting that these mascots reinforce stereotypes on a subconscious level. They can contribute to depression in Native American teens and subsequently increase their risk of suicide. NAGA has tried to deny this and even made the ridiculous claim that Native teen suicides dropped when the Washington team won the Super Bowl. By aligning with NAGA, Neshaminy has chosen to not just ignore psychology experts, but essentially declare the entire field to be “infected” with a “false and despicable ideology”. From NAGA’s website comes this bizarre rant about the American Psychology Association (APA) and the Not Your Mascot movement:
“Also, at this juncture, the APA has begun dumbing down the higher education system as they have infected psychology departments with ideology over facts. Higher education begins to fully embrace this new ideology standard, twisting history to fit a new narrative of victimhood. Touting victimhood has proven to foment division and even hatred in society.”
“The two entities, APA and Not Your Mascot, intentionally or not, are creating hate and division at the expense of unity and acceptance though a false and despicable ideology.”
NAGA was formed around 2015 with Eunice Davidson and a small group of Spirit Lake Sioux that supported keeping the University of North Dakota’s “Fighting Sioux” mascot. Since its inception, NAGA’s central figureheads have been mostly white people and white people identifying as Native. NAGA has sent its paid spokespeople across the country to guard the reputations and financial interests of schools with Native “themed” mascots. The organization has been aggressive towards Native Americans (such as Donna) and tries to discredit actual Native voices by referring to supporters of change as a “radical hate group” or “un-American”. NAGA received a substantial increase in funding the same year the Dan Snyder’s “Washington R******* Original Americans Foundation” (WROAF) stopped giving money to actual Native American organizations.
NAGA representative, retired Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Michael Andre Billeaudeaux testified in support of the name for Neshaminy in 2019. Like many of the other white NAGA representatives, Billeaudeaux falsely refers to himself as Native American or “part-Native” yet insists on telling actual Native Americans how they should feel regarding the mascots. He declares himself a “R******* expert” but he has no actual knowledge of Native American history. What he is an expert on is State Department propaganda such as the strategic use of “patriotism” or “national identity” as a way of protecting national security.
In October of 2014 Billeaudeaux published his first ahistorical and offensive children’s book “How the R******* Got Their Name”. Earlier in that year a bi-partisan group of Virginia Legislators had formed a “R******s Pride Caucus” in response to calls to change the Washington team’s name. They promoted Billeaudeaux’s book on their Facebook page and then hosted an event for him to speak at. His book is a collection of falsehoods and nonsense that Billeaudeaux wrote with Mark “One Wolf” Yancey, who also lies about his Native American heritage. In 2015, he published another book, “The Real Lancaster Legend” which contains even more political rants about the “dark forces” in support of changing the name.
During Billeaudeaux’s career he developed the “Citizen’s Action Network” as a way for “citizens, businesses, tribal members and Canadians” to spy on behalf of the Coast Guard and report “suspicious activity” to the DHS. His 2007 thesis at the Naval Postgraduate School (NPS) dealt with “grooming” grassroots vigilance among recruits and building trust in the government.
“The days of the U.S. military carrying the fight to hotspots outside of our nation’s borders are over. The battlefront, and the fear and tensions that go along with a battlefront, is now the homeland — our cities, communities and waterways.”
In 2017 Billeaudeaux pulled his son out of J.E.B. Stuart High School while it was considering a name change. The school, now named Justice High School, previously used the “Raiders” mascot with a silhouetted Confederate soldier and flag. In his article on the Committed Conservative blog, Billeaudeaux lamented the removal of Confederate monuments and the isolation of the “white working-class”. He claims the school was undergoing an “attack” by the “NAACP, Black Lives Matter and by Progressive operatives”, while ironically comparing them to Confederate generals launching surprise attacks against the Union. He goes on to say Black students were skipping school and dropping out in “record numbers” because of the so-called “divisiveness” created by the name-change campaign. In an interview with FOX, Billeaudeaux praises J.E.B. Stuart as a moderate. “[Stuart] inherited one slave when his father died and the other one was the property of his wife, and when they went from Virginia to Kansas, they released their slaves.”
In 2019, NAGA representatives, Billeaudeaux and Michael Larranaga received their certificates in a course entitled “Advanced Thinking in Homeland Security” which Larranaga helped design. Larranaga’s 2012 thesis on crude pipeline infrastructure has been very influential among the DHS. In it, Larranaga argues that the Keystone XL pipeline is vital to national security. Just last March, the two Mike’s patented their new surf glove design with fellow NPS student and entrepreneur John Comiskey.
Texas attorney William J. Brotherton is another white NAGA leader claiming Native identity. Brotherton was a lawyer for Eunice Davidson and the small group of Sioux that wanted to keep the UND mascot. A graduate of UND and member of the Texas Republican Lawyers Association, he often writes conservative opinion pieces on the mascot issue, supposed “cancel culture”, and how the Southern Policy Law Center is a “hate group”. He claims to be Missisquoi Abenaki through his grandmother in Vermont and served on the public service board tasked with decommissioning the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant. Despite claiming Native identity, he was very unfamiliar with the site’s history and cultural significance to Native Americans. On his law firm website, Brotherton claims to have “worked to resolve the Dakota Access protest”.
Since his testimony for Neshaminy, Billeaudeaux has begun working as a Chief of Public Affairs for the US Army Corps of Engineers (USACE). The Standing Rock Sioux have an ongoing lawsuit challenging the federal permits USACE granted for the Dakota Access pipeline. The Sioux have received tremendous public support on behalf of the APA which refers to the government’s actions as “environmental racism”. This might help explain Billeaudeaux’s conspiracies slandering the field of psychology on NAGA’s website.
While Native Americans have diverse views and are not a monolith on every team name and/or mascot, NAGA relies on drastically overestimating the number of Native Americans that are supportive of these names. To add insult to injury, they actually push the idea that Native people are contributing to their own genocide by fighting against these mascots (comparing them to Jews who sided with Nazis in the Holocaust). They use the phrase “Educate not Eradicate” in an attempt to claim the mascots are there to “educate”. The reality is that for predominantly white sports fans to adopt an identity of “Indians”, “Braves” or “R******s”, they have to obscure and romanticize the brutal history of colonialism.
The forces of colonialism have certainly changed throughout the centuries. But in many ways they continue through Federal infrastructure projects, pipelines, mining and other encroachments on Indigenous lands and cultures. The purpose of preserving symbols at the expense of Native education is to continue the colonial tradition of forced assimilation. NAGA views Native American identity as a threat to U.S. national security that should be suppressed. This political aim of appropriating Native American symbols into dominant “American” culture is expressed in Billeaudeaux’s introduction on the NAGA website:
NAGA provides no educational resources, outside of Billeaudeaux’s political rants. The organization is an affront to Indigenous people and their allies and should not be allowed anywhere near a school. The state should also not expect a minority student to have to face an angry mob to prove that a racial slur and stereotypical imagery causes them harm.
In inspiration of Donna’s work to address Neshaminy, the Coalition of Natives and Allies was formed. The organization is an education and advocacy resource for schools dealing with similar circumstances. They help provide educational resources to improve the way in which Native Americans are represented in classrooms and elsewhere.
Ultimately, the retirement of these mascots is about clarifying history. The mascots don’t exist to “educate” but they do exist to obscure Native American history and treat Native people as a relic of the past rather than how they want to be seen in the present. What was considered “honorable” by a white society a century ago should not justify the continued use of racist mascots and team names. Schools deserve to have a rich sports’ culture without stereotyping and denigrating Native Americans. Hopefully the PHRC will appeal the Commonwealth Court’s decision to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, but the fight against institutionalized racism is far from over.