Debating mascot change at Mohawk

  • Franklin Tech's Emily Ryan (18) jumps up for a block against Mohawk in Buckland, Sept. 25, 2018, with the home team’s mascot adorning the wall behind. The mural was a gift of the class of 1978. FILE/Contributed Photo

Staff Writer
Published: 3/4/2019 7:23:51 AM

BUCKLAND — A mix of emotions has greeted a proposal to eliminate Mohawk Trail Regional School’s Native American mascot – among them outrage, nostalgia and hope.

The school mascot portrays an indigenous man in a feathered headdress.

While the mascot and logo are on the table, Mohawk has no plans to change its team nickname, “warriors,” Co-Principal Marisa Mendonsa said last week, as the term has multiple interpretations.

Mohawk administrators will gather public opinion at a date to be determined, likely before the end of the school year, Mendonsa said. The administration will then make a recommendation to the School Committee, who will vote on whether or not to make the change, Buckland Chairwoman Martha Thurber said.

But if a new bill submitted by Sen. Jo Comerford, D-Northampton, to ban the use of Native American athletic team names, logos, and mascots by public schools, becomes law – the decision may be out of Mohawk’s hands.

Alumni, locals weigh in

Mohawk’s 1978 Senior Class Vice President Lisa Nartowicz Jablonski waxed nostalgic about the mascot in a December letter to school leadership. Jablonski’s class gifted a mural of the logo in the gym.

“When we gifted this painting to Mohawk, it was with heart and honor, it was both well accepted and admired, completed by a very talented artist and it represented our loyalty to the school where we had spent six years of our young lives, those fun yet also challenging, influential years, it was ‘our time’ being molded into adults within those brick walls, so it did sting a little that it was going to be brushed away without understanding the true reason why today’s student body thought it so important to remove,” Jablonski wrote.

Randy Smith, another 1978 graduate, expressed “utter disbelief” at the prospective change in an email, saying the ‘warriors’ nickname is a tribute to Native Americans.

“Making the broad statement that all mascots are racial stereotypes is ridiculous,” Smith said. “Applying that type of statement unto itself seems somewhat derogatory towards the Mohawk people’s in viewing them as weak and needing protection.”

Smith noted that ‘warrior’ is also the name of a yoga pose.

“Does this mean that if I say I am not agreement with this term when I’m taking a yoga class that I can force them to use a different term?” he said.

However, Smith admitted that some indigenous nicknames like ‘redskin’ do have “negative connotations.”

Michelle Lerner, a 1985 Mohawk graduate and Ohio school principal, supports removing the mascot, saying that change is overdue.

“I think that the use of Native American imagery perpetuates the myth that Native Americans are warlike people, and ignores other aspects of their cultures,” Lerner said.

Longtime Buckland resident Janice Sorensen, who is half Native American, said she saw issues with the mascot shortly after she moved to the area 23 years ago.

“I thought – this really bugs me. This doesn’t feel respectful,” Sorensen said.

The traditional way that Mohawk’s mascot is depicted may relegate Native American people to history, Sorensen said.

“There are people who walk around, and they’re your neighbors, who are of Native American descent, Sorensen said. “It’s perpetuating this romantic notion of the noble savage, which kind of usurps or removes or bumps out of the way the people who are alive and living now.”

Native American voices

AmaliaFourHawks, a local Native person involved in Turners Falls’ recent mascot debate, said most Native Americans see “the use of their living, active culture as a mascot demeaning and offensive.”

Other minority groups are not depicted as mascots in the U.S., FourHawks pointed out.

“No one would ever stand for a sports team that used a stereotyped image of another race and then claim that it was to ‘honor’ that race,” FourHawks said.

Rich Holschuh, of Native American and European heritage, raised doubts about the Mohawk tribe’s attachment to West County, saying the Mohawk Trail was named by the Mass. Legislature as a marketing move. Holschuh is the appointed spokesperson for a state-recognized tribe in Vermont, ElnuAbenaki, and a member of the Vt. Commission on Native American Affairs.

“The statement that the Mohawk shared the fishing sites on the Connecticut River is patently false and ridiculous under examination, although it has entered local mythology, again, completely unsubstantiated,” Holschuh said.

To Holschuh, Mohawk’s mascot erases the history of local indigenous people and replaces it with a “convenient false historical narrative.”

Dr. Michael Hoberman, literature professor at Fitchberg State University, said the Mohawk people did not reside in Franklin County but rather raided its inhabitants, the Pocumtuck tribe.

The impacts of Native American mascots

Studies indicate that Native American mascots have harmful effects on indigenous young people, Springfield College Sociology Professor Laurel Davis-Delano said. These mascots can generate “stress and anxiety for Native American youth,” she said, and diminish their self-esteem. On the other hand, studies show that Native American mascots can improve the self esteem of white students, Davis-Delano said.

“The schools are obligated not to provide a hostile learning environment, and the mascots are doing that,” Davis-Delano said.

Native American mascots consolidate innumerable people and cultures as a singular group, Davis-Delano said. There are currently 573 federally recognized Native American tribes in the U.S., according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, including two in Massachusetts: the MashpeeWampanoag Tribe, and the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah). The state also has a state-recognized tribe, the Nipmuc Nation, according to the NCSL.

View Sen. Comerford’s bill here: https://malegislature.gov/Bills/191/SD937.

You can reach Grace Bird at: gbird@recorder.com or 413 772 0261 ext. 280.


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