Native American Mohawk alumnus calls mascot debate a ‘civil rights issue’

  • Rhonda Anderson of Colrain is a member of the Inupiaq Athabaskan tribe. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

Staff Writer
Published: 4/8/2019 11:03:51 PM

COLRAIN — Rhonda Anderson of Colrain has many identities. She is the mother of a teenage daughter, a substitute teacher, a silversmith and a jewelry maker. She is also a member of the Native Alaskan tribe Inupiaq Athabaskan. Anderson moved from Alaska to western Massachusetts as a small girl, where she 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. And while proponents of these mascots say they seek to honor Native Americans, Anderson is clear: she feels hurt and belittled by them. She did not send her daughter to Mohawk due to its Native American mascot, as a means to protect her.

Native American mascots have been the subject of regional debate recently. In 2017, Turners Falls changed its “Indians” mascot to “Thunder.” Anderson attended many of these discussions to offer her perspective, often as the only Native American voice, she said.

Mohawk Trail is next in line, and as the school edges towards removing the final two images of its Native American mascot, Anderson is again attending meetings to give her perspective. She plans to go to Mohawk Trail Regional School Committee’s meeting Wednesday, 7 p.m. at the school in Buckland.

School officials say they are not considering changing its name, “Warriors,” at this time. However, Anderson said she supports changing the team name too, as it appears alongside “Mohawk” and therefore represents Native Americans.

“How great would it be if they were the Mohawk Catamounts, or the Mohawk Lions?” Anderson said.

However, Anderson says she cannot speak for all Native Americans as indigenous people belong to thousands of tribes, each with their own language, culture and religion. There are 573 federally recognized Native American tribes in the U.S., according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

“When you have this image of a Plains caricature, you’re taking and compressing 560 different cultures into one image, and we’re all so different. Not everybody dressed this way. Not everybody looks this way,” Anderson said. “It sends a very dangerous image … to Native American children who are just sort of finding their way … also to non-indigenous people, it sends a very dangerous bias, racial stereotype, that does not serve them well when they enter the larger world.”

Anderson is not alone in her opposition to Native American mascots, she says. The National Congress of American Indians has been fighting these mascots they describe as “derogatory and harmful stereotypes” for decades, launching a campaign to address the issue in 1968. The American Psychological Association similarly opposes Native American mascots, saying they are “teaching stereotypical, misleading and too often, insulting images of American Indians,” and are “sending the wrong message to all students.”

Local tribes have also vocalized opposition to Native American mascots. The Cowasuck Band of the Pennacook, members of the Abenaki Nation, whose traditional homelands cover New Hampshire, southern Quebec, and parts of Maine, Massachusetts and Vermont, expressed opposition to Native American mascots in a February 2017 open letter which said these images portrayed Native Americans as “savage,” and that no other race had been depicted as mascots in the U.S.

“Any image that shows: an angry, menacing red face; a big toothed growling face; a scarred or war-painted face; a misused war bonnet or head dress; a blood covered tomahawk, knife, arrow; a bloody scalp; and, many such other images are blatantly offensive and racist to all indigenous people — there are no exceptions. How are these images supposed to ‘honor’ us?” the Cowasuck Band statement says.

At Mohawk Trail, plans to remove a mural in the gymnasium depicting a Plains Native American has elicited the most debate. A Local Education Council meeting April 1 drew scores of alumni outraged at plans to remove the painting, saying it was a gift from the class of 1978 intended to honor Native Americans. This painting does not depict local Native Americans but rather indigenous tribes from the western plains.

In addition, the Mohawk Native Americans, the school’s namesake, does not depict any tribe located in this region. Franklin County’s first residents were Sokoki Abenaki, Pocumtuck, Mohican and Nipmuc tribes, while Mohawks resided in northeastern New York, passing through the county in the 16th and 17th centuries, according to Robert I. Quay in his 2004 thesis, “Mohawks, Model Ts and Monuments.”

While Native Americans are often relegated to history, Anderson says many indigenous people still live in Western Massachusetts. Anderson has gotten to know many Native Americans in the area, and is currently curating an art exhibition with portraits of roughly 13 local indigenous people, to say, in her words: “We’re still here.”

“We’re largely invisible,” Anderson said. “We’re mainly thought of as gone, or historical. We belong to the history, that’s where we’re categorized. That’s so not true. We are contemporary people who enjoy modernity … We’re all exceedingly different.”

While Anderson is aware many members of the Mohawk School community oppose removing the Native American mascot, she says the issue cannot wait for majority support as it relates to civil rights. Had America waited for the majority to support desegregation, she explains, the Jim Crow laws may never have been overturned.

“If it had been up to a vote, it never would have passed in this country,” Anderson said of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1954 decision to desegregate public schools. “We would still be probably fighting this today.”

Reach Grace Bird at or
413-772-0261, ext. 280.

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