TURNERS FALLS — The Gill-Montague Regional School Committee has voted to change the Turners Falls High School mascot from the “Indians” in a 6-3 vote on Tuesday night.
About 70 were in the crowd of the auditorium as the five-month debate came to an unanticipated close when the School Committee voted to change after an hour of discussion on the issue.
The School Committee was partially through a process to review the mascot that they discontinued last meeting. Those who advocated for the vote said it was because the process had become overwhelmingly divisive in the towns and schools.
“I keep looking for some part of this that will help people learn from each other and become less polarized and I’m not seeing that,” said Jane Oaks, a committee member who voted in favor of change.
Chairman Michael Langknecht and members April Reipold and Leslie Cogswell voted against changing the mascot on Tuesday, with some members citing the shortened process as reason why.
“I really think that we should wait until the town has a chance to speak,” Reipold said.
She recommended waiting until the town voted in the referendum that the Montague Selectboard put on the May town election last week.
“We should shoulder this burden a little bit longer and take the steps we said we would take,” Langknecht said when he told the committee he would be voting no on the motion.
The committee took the vote after a statement from Superintendent Michael Sullivan, who was asked by the committee to speak about the issue from a pedagogical perspective.
“In terms of sharing my perspective on the ‘TFHS Indians,’ I would start by saying there is no doubt that the ‘Indian’ is a symbol of tradition and pride to many, if not most, of the adult members of the district’s communities and we now know that most of our students feel similarly. We also know that those who support the ‘Indian’ have no ill intent towards Native Americans. But, because they bear no ill will, many supporters of the nickname and logo, particularly students, continue to ask ‘where is the harm in it?’
“As the district’s educational leader I believe we need to help our students understand that there is harm in the status quo. On average, each year, three of our students are Native American and these students deserve and are afforded the same civil rights protections enjoyed by all students.”
Sullivan said that over the last several months the board heard from more than 50 local Native Americans who said they did not support the logo and did not feel as though it honored them.
“Our review process has shown that there is widespread interest in having students learn more about local history and Native American cultures. This is commendable and will be acted upon. But this will not be enough,” he said.
“Indians are not like cowboys or Vikings. They are cultures of real people, our neighbors, and it is inappropriate to treat them or any racial, ethnic, religious or gender group in ways that perpetuate and legitimize stereotypes.”
He also spoke about a possible compromise, like the one proposed within the language of the referendum.
“In my opinion there is no way to retain the name ‘Indians’ that would not continue to present a civil rights problem, a pedagogical mixed message and a misalignment with our mission and core values.”
Supporters of the change erupted in applause when Sullivan finished his statement.
The crowd at Tuesday night’s meeting included those from both sides of the debate who spoke passionately about the issue and the process during the public participation portion before the vote. Once the vote was taken supporters of the change stood up and began applauding the School Committee, as they had at other previous points in the meeting.
Some supporters of keeping the mascot stood up and immediately left after the vote.
After the vote the School Committee discussed the next steps before deciding to take a break from the issue for two meetings to let the dust settle and let the community heal.
“I’d like to find some ways for us to unify before we proceed,” committee member Christina Postera said after the vote, noting that the vote is a big change for the community.
Rhonda Anderson, a supporter of change who attended the high school and lives in Colrain, said she was overwhelming happy about the vote, and said the superintendent’s words showed that the School Committee had listened.
“I’m really encouraged that this community can come together and heal,” she said.
Alana Martineau, supporter of keeping the Indian and a graduate of the school and parent of a freshman, said the outcome felt inevitable to her but she was disappointed in the process.
“I feel like the decision was already made and we were just going through the motions,” she said.