Schools are asked: What's in a name?
Native Americans find many team images, logos offensive
By John C. Drake | February 8, 2007 | The Boston Globe
In Natick, the high school's athletes are called Redmen. In Wayland, they're called the Warriors, and at Nashoba Regional High School, the Chieftains.
At least 46 high schools in Massachusetts have mascots, logos, or nicknames, like Chieftains, Indians, and Tomahawks, drawn from Native American culture. For years, Native American advocates have urged the schools to drop the nicknames, but their efforts have gone mostly unheeded.
On Thursday, the sportsmanship committee of the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association will take up the matter for the first time, deciding whether to urge schools to change such nicknames. It is not clear what action, if any, the 18-member committee will take. The committee recently sent surveys to athletic directors and principals at each of the high schools with such mascots to gauge the level of discomfort.
"When our names and symbols are taken out of context to mean something else, they are no longer respecting our ways and our meanings," said Claudia Fox Tree, a member of the Arawak tribe who lives in Bedford. "People get tied into tradition, and they don't want to change even though it's offensive to other groups."
At least eight schools in the suburbs west of Boston use nicknames or logos with Native American themes, according to a list maintained by the New England Anti-Mascot Coalition. Two other schoolsKing Philip Regional High School in Wrentham and Nipmuc Regional High School in Uptonfield the Warriors. At Assabet Valley Regional High School, it's the Aztecs. At Algonquin Regional High School in Northborough, the Tomahawks; Millis calls players the Mohawks. And in Watertown, athletes have been called both the Raiders and the Red Raiders.
Fox Tree, a middle school teacher in Lincoln who has studied Native American identity and speaks to groups about cultural issues, said mascots with Indian names are dehumanizing.
"Keeping native people relegated to those mascot words makes them objects instead of human beings that have a culture," she said.
The revived interest in Massachusetts high school sports mascotsmirroring similar debates at the collegiate and professional levelwas sparked by a controversy in Natick, where the Redmen have been the high school mascot for 50 years.
In December, Erin Miller, a 1997 Natick High School graduate, called on the School Committee to drop the mascot, and the committee agreed to consider the idea.
Community reaction was intense. Many parents and students want to keep the tradition in place, and they besieged the School Committee with e-mails. A public hearing on the matter has been delayed once and is now set for March 5.
Advocates hope Natick's debate will lead other districts with such mascots to consider making a change. They also are hoping for action at the state level, but the state high school athletic league has been noncommittal.
"I'm not sure where our boundaries are with this," said Reading High School athletic director Philip Vaccaro, the sportsmanship committee's chairman. "I understand that we need to be sensitive to people's heritage."
The US Commission on Civil Rights, the National Congress of American Indians, and the NAACP all have come out against the sports mascots. State education agencies in New York, Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and New Hampshire also have called upon schools in their states to stop using them. Dozens of school systems in these states have since dropped them.
In 2005, the NCAA banned the use of Native American mascots by sports teams during postseason tournaments. ( Florida State University received a waiver to participate in postseason play after leaders of the Seminole tribe sanctioned the college's use of their name.)
In Massachusetts, an antimascot coalition is urging that high school teams follow the college ban, but Vaccaro said high school mascots are different.
"We're dealing with the whole community here," he said. "We're not dealing with just the school. We're dealing with the town. We're dealing with tradition. We're dealing with identification."
Similarly, Peter Roby, director of the Center for the Study of Sport in Society at Northeastern University, said the pressures of local traditions also outweigh the generally liberal politics of Massachusetts. "Even though Massachusetts generally may have a liberal leaning, I think every community is different," said Roby, who was one of the movers behind the sportsmanship committee's decision to take up the issue.
In communities where the issue has surfaced before, tradition has usually won out.
Some schools, like Natick High School, have scaled back official use of potentially offensive images, but have retained the nicknames.
Also, fan activities like wearing headdresses and participating in the "tomahawk chop" rallying gesture continue at many of the schools. Natick school officials say they ended official use of the Indian headdress logo several years ago, but fans continue to wear sweatshirts and other apparel with the image.
Meanwhile, Brookline High School has kept its nicknamethe Warriorsdespite recent controversy. In November, members of the girls' volleyball team wore Indian headdresses at a playoff game, upsetting some Native American students.
The school's logo is a spear with feathers.
Brookline School Committee chairwoman Judy Meyers said that has led to some discussion among students and administrators at the high school. It would be the second mascot change for the school, which changed its mascot from the Indians about two decades ago.
"One of the problems when you change a mascot name, there's a lot of expense that goes into it," Meyers said, referring to the cost of changing uniforms, school letterhead, and signs.
"Although I am sympathetic to the issue, if it were to come up, I cannot close my eyes to the fact that we're having very difficult times with our budget and there are going to be cost implications."
Ed Grogan said he has been urging officials at North Quincy High School to change the Red Raiders nickname and Yakoo logo since the late 1980s, when he left Atlantic Middle School to teach social studies at the high school. Photos of the logo show a menacing-looking man with an over size nose carrying a tomahawk and wearing feathers around his head.
"I was the only one at that time that wanted to see the mascot changed," said Grogan, who is retired and is now the chairman of the Quincy Human Rights Commission.
The Massachusetts Commission on Indian Affairs has urged several individual schools to part ways with mascots it deemed offensive, said executive director John Peters.
Peters, a member of the Wampanoag tribe, said the commission joined the unsuccessful efforts to change North Quincy's mascot after hearing about a disturbing pep rally scene in the 1980s.
"They were doing some horrific pep rally performances where they had a native scalp a European," he said. "And the native people took issue with that, because scalping was something the Europeans brought over here, and also, it doesn't leave a very good view of the native people."
Efforts to reach North Quincy High School principal Louis Ioanilli to ask about the school's practices were unsuccessful.
Within the last five years, the commission urged Winchester High School to change its mascot, Sachems, a word that refers to Native American tribal leaders. He said school leaders worked to make the Indian head logo less offensive, but the nickname remains.
"Our success rate hasn't been very good," Peters said.
In Massachusetts, advocates could point to only one high school, Frontier Regional School in Deerfield, that has changed its mascot in recent years. Once called the Redskins, the school adopted the mascot Red Hawks in 2000.
Peters said the state has been unwilling to change in part because of the small number of Native Americans in the state. American Indians and Alaskan Natives made up 0.3 percent of the state's population in 2005, according to the US Census.
John C. Drake can be reached at 508-820-4229 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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