Massachusetts bill would ban Native American school mascots

  • A balloon sporting the Turners Falls Indians mascot at the commencement of the class of 2017 Friday, June 2, 2017.

Combined sources
Published: 6/6/2017 7:38:29 PM

BOSTON — Massachusetts lawmakers are weighing whether to ban the use of Native American mascots in public schools — a proposal that drew strong opinions at a public hearing Tuesday.

The push comes after the town of Tewksbury rebuffed efforts to change the name of its high school mascot, the Redmen — and even as the town of Montague continues to debate its school committee decision to remove its long-time Indians mascot.

Linda Thomas has children in the first and fourth grades in Tewksbury and said she doesn’t want to signal that “it’s OK to use these images and memes and logos.”

“The name has become so integrated and repeated that the meaning is lost,” she said. “People using it don’t intend to cause harm, but the impact is harmful and Native Americans have been saying this now for decades.”

Thomas added it’s hard to imagine any other racial group being used as a mascot.

State Rep. James Miceli, a Democrat who represents Tewksbury, said opinion in the town was overwhelmingly against changing the Redmen mascot. He urged fellow lawmakers to reject the bill outright or exempt communities that already have voted, as Tewksbury did at a town meeting.

“The Indians have been to that community many times,” Miceli said after testifying. “We held powwows in that town. Never once when I have seen this did they mention anything in opposition” to the mascot.

There are divisions among Native Americans.

Gloria Colon, outreach coordinator for the North American Indian Center of Boston, said she is troubled about the way some mascots are portrayed.

“Some of them depict large noses and some of them seem to be angry, so that’s very offensive to me,” said Colon, of Micmac heritage.

But Gene Weeden Williams, a Narragansett Indian who lives in Amesbury, saw nothing to be gained by going after Native American mascots.

“My people need help, but that’s not the kind of help we need,” said Williams, adding he does not take offense to sports teams using the names. “It could get worse for us by causing a division between my people and other people.”

The bill defines a Native American mascot as a “name, symbol, or image that depicts or refers to an American Indian tribe, individual, custom or tradition that is used by a public school as a mascot, nickname, logo, letterhead or team name.”

The bill gives specific examples, including “Redskins,” “Savages,” “Indians,” “Indianettes,” “Chiefs,” “Chieftains,” “Braves” or “Redmen.”

Republican Gov. Charlie Baker said Monday he’s waiting to see what action the Legislature takes, if any, but added, “I don’t think anybody should use anything as a mascot in a derogatory sense.”

Democratic Senate President Stan Rosenberg said he’s heard mixed messages from residents.

Some Massachusetts school districts have taken similar action. In 1988 Wellesley High dropped the word “red” from its Red Raiders nickname and adopted a pirate mascot.

Since then, Frontier Regional School in Deefield changed its name from Redskins to Red Hawks. Natick similarly switched from “Redmen” to Red Hawks. And the Gill-Montague Regional School Committee dropped Indians as the mascot for Turners Falls High School.

Turners Falls Indians

While the issue originated at the state level in Tewksbury, the issue will be watched closely in Franklin County. A state decision to ban Native American mascots would further solidify the decision by the Gill-Montague Regional School Committee that removed the Turners Falls High School mascot four months ago.

Facebook group Save the TF Indians Logo shared a post from the Beating Drum Radio Show encouraging those who do not support the legislation to send a form letter to Sen. Barbara L’Italian’s office so she could submit the letters as part of the written testimony of the bill.

Wes Ritchie, chief of staff for L’Italian, said the office had only seen testimony from the eastern part of the state. The testimony from the public hearing was also from those in the eastern part of the state.

While the issue is debated a the state level, the Gill-Montague School Committee continues to work on the process that will eventually produce a new mascot for the school. The committee will meet in two weeks to brainstorm ideas for the next portion of the process.

In 2015, California Gov. Jerry Brown signed legislation making the state the first to bar public schools from using the Redskins name for sports teams.

In Oregon, school districts with tribal mascots must do away with them by July 1. The state makes exceptions for districts that get the approval of one of Oregon’s nine tribes. In Wisconsin, opponents of Native American mascots can file a complaint.

In 1993, the Washington State Board of Education passed a resolution encouraging schools to drop Native American mascots.

The controversy has also embroiled professional sports teams, notably the NFL’s Washington Redskins and the Cleveland Indians of Major League Baseball.

In 2014, the U.S. Patent and Trademark office declined to register several trademarks for the Redskins, a franchise that was founded in Boston in the 1930s, citing federal regulations against protecting words and images that are disparaging or offensive. The team argued the rule violates the First Amendment.

Recorder staff writer Miranda Davis contributed
to this report.

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