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"Residents Ask School Committee To Again Rethink Mascot" (Montague Reporter, 5/26/16)

posted Sep 16, 2016, 11:59 AM by Jen Audley   [ updated Sep 16, 2016, 12:06 PM ]
For those seeking background on the events that led up to the GMRSD School Committee's decision to consider changing the Turners Falls High School mascot, here is The Montague Reporter's coverage of the May 24, 2016 Gill-Montague Regional School Committee meeting. (Reprinted with permission from the May 26, 2016 issue.)

"Residents Ask School Committee To Again Rethink Mascot"

By Mike Jackson

Gill-Montague – At Tuesday night’s meeting of the Gill-Montague Regional School Committee, several local residents spoke during the time allotted for public comment to suggest that the district should once again consider changing the mascot of Turners Falls High School, which is currently the Indian.

“Frankly, we’re going to have to change the name, sooner or later,” said Jean Hebden, a resident of downtown Turners Falls and a Montague town meeting member from Precinct 5. “Either the MIAA… or the state, or the federal government, is going to pass a law saying that we can no longer use Native American nicknames for our schools, for whatever reason.”

Hebden said that she was shopping online for shoes when she discovered that shoe giant Adidas is offering financial support to any needy district voluntarily changing their Native American mascot.

“They’re willing to help with the design, they’re willing to help with new uniforms,” she said. “To me, now would be the time to look into it… I think it’s socially responsible for us to do it before it’s mandatory.”

“It feels a little bit silly, in a way, that we even need to come here and state this,” said Natan Cohen, also of downtown Turners Falls. “The Native American genocide was real, and something that happened. Appropriating these symbols is not really a sign of respect at all.”

“A little bit of a dilemma, I know, is for people that went to the school and played on these teams, or supported these teams – it’s part of an identity that they feel proud of,” said Anne Jemas, of Montague’s Precinct 4. “I think a lot of people are interpreting the meaning of the name differently, and that’s convenient, and understandable… But times change, and when you know better, you have the opportunity to do better.”

Jemas said she thought the process of selecting a new mascot could be “an empowering experience” for the towns. “We’re not coming to this early, but we also don’t want to come to it late,” she said. “It makes much more sense to be ahead of the curve.”

Precinct 5’s David Detmold spoke at length, focusing on the massacre of Native American people carried out within territory currently represented by the district in 1676 by an English militia led by Capt. William Turner. “You’re naming the team Indians in a town, and a school, named after the man who killed every Indian he could find,” Detmold argued.

Detmold also cited a 2005 resolution by the American Psychological Association recommending the retirement of ethnic mascots. “They’ve done studies on this, which they cite, that the use of Native American mascots is harmful to Native American students,” he said, pointing out that there are Native American students in the district.

Detmold suggested that the district “spend a year of outreach and education on this subject within the school community, and the towns of Gill and Montague, and bring it to the town meetings for an advisory opinion next May – to report back to the SC, to see what the will of the town is. “We’d very much like to use this as an educational opportunity, and a chance for everyone to be heard,” he said.

“I feel like this is something that is perhaps viewed as a small thing,” said Suzette Snow-Cobb, also of downtown Turners Falls. “But it could go a long way to recognizing that all of us live in this community,  and we don’t want to have degrading or derogatory images or actions for the people that live here.”

School committee chair Michael Langknecht thanked the residents for their input, and noted that any committee member could place the topic on the agenda at a future meeting.

Marjorie Levenson, recently reelected member from Montague, said she felt the committee should add it as a future topic for discussion. “Obviously whatever happens requires a great deal of thought, and education, for the community,” Levenson said. “We want people to feel involved in the process as we pursue, or don’t pursue, this, and how we do it….I think the onus should be on the school committee to pursue these avenues,” she said. “The charge is our charge,” not that of the members of the public who had brought the topic before the committee, “to do the work.”

Thirty-nine high school teams in Massachusetts still have Native American-themed mascots, including several in western Massachusetts: the Athol Red Raiders, Mohawk Warriors, Springfield Red Raiders, and Ware Indians.

That count was 46 as recently as 2007. Some of those teams – including the Dedham Marauders, Lowell Red Raiders, and the Matignon, Nauset and Brookline Warriors – have kept their names, but discontinued their ethnic logos (the Marauders famously adopting a pirate).

The Natick Red Men have become the Red Hawks, and the Watertown Red Raiders dropped the “Red” from their name, though not their uniforms. Locally, the Frontier Redhawks were known until 2000 as the Redskins.

In 2009, the GMRSD school committee voted to discontinue the use of the “tomahawk chop” cheer at athletic events, though some say it is still heard. The school’s longtime team logo, generic clip art of a Plains Indian in silhouette, has been officially retired by the district, but is still actively used in the community, including by the Turners Falls High School Alumni Association.