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New York Village Changes Controversial Seal Showing a White Settler Wrestling a Native American

The seal was widely mocked and criticized after villagers voted against changing it last year

The Village of Whitesboro's old seal (left) adjacent to its new seal (right). (Village of Whitesboro)
smithsonian.com

The village of Whitesboro, New York, has changed an official seal that depicted a white man wrestling—or, according to some interpretations, choking—a Native American chief. The new seal represents a change of heart for residents of the village of 3,700, who voted last year to keep the controversial emblem in place.

As Maya Salam of the New York Times reports, the new seal still depicts the white and Native American men grappling, but the tussle seems more equal, with both parties standing firmly planted on the ground. The previous logo showed the chief being pushed backwards, an anguished expression on his face.

The seal came to national attention in the wake of the 2015 mass shooting at a black church in Charleston, South Carolina, as Danny Lewis reported for Smithsonian.com last year. Detractors said the seal looked like it belonged in the fictional and absurdly clueless town of Pawnee from NBC’s Parks and Recreation. But 157 out of 212 Whitesboro residents who turned out for a 2016 informal vote on the issue wanted to keep the emblem in place.

Those against changing the seal said it depicted a friendly wrestling match between Hugh White, Whitesboro’s founder, and a chief of the Oneida Nation. “[White] lived among the Indians as their friend and the Village Seal depicts a friendly wrestling match that helped foster good relations between White and the Indians,” Whitesboro’s website says.

But the seal has been a source of controversy for decades. In the 1970s, a Native American group sued the village, prompting Whitesboro officials to tweak the emblem so that White’s hands were moved down from the chief’s throat to his shoulders.

National scrutiny of Whitesboro intensified in the wake of the vote—particularly after Comedy Central’s The Daily Show ran a segment mocking the seal. In late January 2016, less than a month after the village voted on the issue, Whitesboro Mayor Patrick O'Connor announced that officials would be meeting with members of the Oneida Nation to discuss changing the emblem.

In a radio interview with WIBX, Mayor O’Connor said the village’s initial decision was reversed after a “huge contingent of people that voted to keep it came in and said, ‘Hey, even though we voted to keep it, can you change it, tweak this, tweak that?’”

The village worked with an art student to adjust the graphics of the emblem, according to Elizabeth Doran of Syracuse.com. In addition to making White and the chief seem more evenly matched, the new seal corrects a number of historical inaccuracies, like the style of the chief’s headdress.

It took more than a year to make the changes, and the new seal quietly debuted about two months ago, according to Salam of the Times. Speaking to WIBX, Mayor O’Connor emphasized that the village was not deliberately trying to evade additional media attention. “There was a lot of stuff going on locally and nationally,” he said. “It was not something we tried to hide.”

About Brigit Katz

Brigit Katz is a journalist based in New York City. Her work has appeared in New York magazine, Flavorwire, and Women in the World, a property of The New York Times.

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