Senators sponsor state bill to ban Native American mascots

  • ANDERSON

  • COMERFORD

  • HINDS

Staff Writer
Published: 2/12/2021 5:58:55 PM

Area state senators are sponsors of a bill that would prohibit public schools from using Native American mascots, logos and team names.

State Sen. Jo Comerford, D-Northampton, filed Bill SD.417 a few days ago to take up the mantle in the fight against imagery and mascots deemed insensitive to Indigenous communities. Comerford is the lead sponsor and Adam Hinds, a Pittsfield Democrat, has signed on, as have Democratic colleagues Sonia Chang-Diaz, Jack Patrick Lewis, Rebecca Rausch, Sal DiDomenico and Jason Lewis. The bill has previously been unsuccessful in legislative session.

“This is one of the pieces of legislation of the MA Indigenous Legislative Agenda, which was created by Native American tribes that are indigenous to Massachusetts,” Comerford said. “They have asked for many years now that schools not use Native imagery, words and symbols as athletic logos. They’ve experienced these as demeaning and they simply just ask to not have their culture used as an athletic symbol.”

If it becomes law, the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) would establish a date “by which any school in violation of said regulations” must choose a new team name, logo or mascot. Comerford stressed that, as long as certain requirements are met, public schools would be allowed to continue their use of “uniforms or other materials bearing their prohibited athletic team name, logo or mascot” while alternatives are selected, as long the equipment was purchased before a date to be chosen by DESE. This, Comerford said, would ensure the changes are phased in and do not create an undue expense.

Comerford said decades of social science research indicates Indigenous mascots hurt Native and non-Native people alike.

“The research proves that, with regard to Native Americans, it seemed to correlate with lower self-esteem, depression ... and for non-Natives it correlated with culturally-insensitive viewpoints and racism. It perpetuates those things in white communities,” she explained. “I’m happy to carry this bill.”

Opponents of the nationwide movement to steer away from Native American imagery in school athletics say mascots and logos honor Indigenous culture.

Activist Rhonda Anderson, of Colrain, applauded the bill’s filing, saying she has worked closely with legislators in regards to this issue.

“We’re feeling confident that it will finally have the traction it needs to pass,” she said.

Anderson was born in Alaska and is a member of the Native Alaskan tribes Inupiaq and Athabaskan. Her native village is Kaktovik. She grew up in Western Massachusetts and attended Sanderson Academy, Mohawk Trail Regional School and Turners Falls High School.

Of the three schools Anderson attended, two had a Native American mascot while she was a student. In 1998, Frontier Regional School in South Deerfield converted its sports teams from the Redskins to the Red Hawks. Anderson was a part of the movement from afar, attending meetings and writing letters to the editor to the Greenfield Recorder in support of the mascot change. In 2018, Turners Falls High School switched from the Indians to the Thunder.

Mohawk Trail Regional District School Committee voted in May 2019 to remove all vestiges of its Native American mascot, though it opted to retain the team name Warriors. The committee voted to remove and replace a mural of a Native American in the school gymnasium.

Currently, Athol High School is seeking a new mascot after the Athol-Royalston Regional School Committee agreed last year to do away with the Red Raiders team name and logo.

Anderson, who is now the state-appointed Western Massachusetts commissioner on Indian affairs and the founder and co-director of the Ohketeau Cultural Center, has fought against Native American mascots across the state, often met with hostility. She said she has been called vile names and has received death and rape threats.

When asked if it is the government’s responsibility to change school mascots and logos, Anderson and Comerford agreed it is a matter of racial justice.

“We’re going to need that mandate for some schools that don’t see the harm. We’re talking about the civil rights of a minority still marginalized and oppressed today,” Anderson said, adding that Indigenous peoples are the victims of the final accepted and overt form of racism in this country. “This is not a ‘social justice warrior’ issue. This is an ethical issue about the hurt and harm that mascots create.”

Comerford said she has “no end of respect for local school committees,” but it is a legitimate function of government to safeguard civil rights and racial justice.

The text of Bill SD.417 can be found online at malegislature.gov/bills/192/sd417.

This story has been modified to clarify Rhonda Anderson’s level of involvement in changing the Frontier Regional School mascot in 1998. The Native Earth Education Project, made up of Glen Douglas, Ruby Beaulieu and Jani Leverett, led the effort to change Frontier’s mascot starting in 1996.


SD417 by Zachary DeLuca on Scribd

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