Mass students, activists and indigenous people want change

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“Our humanity has been so taken away that now we become an animalized, non-human figure on a football pitch.”

The recently announced Commanders logo, 18 months after the Washington team dropped its old moniker. AP Photo/Patrick Semansky

Indigenous mascots have been the subject of fierce debate in recent years.

The Washington Football Team, which previously had an Indigenous mascot, announced its new mascot as Commanders in February, marking one fewer Indigenous mascot on the national stage. But the local Native American community is wondering when that change will come to Massachusetts schools and towns.

“The main goal, which was a goal when I was a student…is to humanize American Indians,” said David Shane Lowry, a member of the Lumbee tribe and a prominent Native American studies researcher at MIT.

Lowry said he believes a big part of the problem is that Indigenous people aren’t seen as “human enough” to be invited into important, even everyday, conversations. This can be seen in many areas of life according to Lowry, but very clearly in watching sports.

“Our humanity has been taken so far away that now we become an animalized, non-human figure on a football field. The Chiefs played the Lions. The Chiefs played the Bears, right?” he said .

He said that even when other team names match human beings, like the Minnesota Vikings, mascot names always boil down to occupations or other markers that do not indicate an inherent descriptor such as “chiefs”.

Lowry noted that although Washington has changed the name of its mascot, the team colors remain the same. So that, he says, allows the name change to be completely ignored as fans kept cheering under the same burgundy and gold.

Shawna Newcomb, a member of the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe and a teacher at the local school, said her experience with Native mascots began during her childhood on the South Shore.

“As a student growing up on the South Shore, I was ashamed of my Aboriginal heritage because the only representation of my heritage was our high school rivals, The Braintree Wamps, whose mascot was an Aboriginal head. with a headdress,” she said. “Because I didn’t look like that picture, it made me feel less Native American.”

Both Newcomb and Lowry cited psychological studies concluding that the presence of Native mascots affects the mental health of Native youth.

A 2020 study concluded that Indigenous mascots were “psychologically harmful” to Indigenous students. Plus, they increase negative stereotypes about Indigenous people, the study found.

Another from 2005 said Native mascots seem to “negatively impact the self-esteem of Native American children”.

Newcomb said she’s starting to see changes locally. In the Hanover Public School District, there was a recent mascot vote.

“The old mascot was the “Indian” of Hanover with a logo that included a Warbonnet [Headdress]. After help from other indigenous voices, the school committee voted to change the mascot,” she said.

And Hannover isn’t the only school making a change.

In 2020, Winnacunnet High School changed its mascot imagery to remove Indigenous symbols and iconography.

School alumni Corina Chao and Mary Casey created a petition, which garnered more than 3,600 signatures, and called for Indigenous symbolism to be removed from the school and incited for change, according to the Sea Coast report Online.

A year later, Amesbury High School voted to change their “Indians” mascot to a new nickname, however, they have yet to announce a replacement. It came after a call in 2016 to change the mascot which was taken down, according to reports from Newburyport’s The daily news.

But despite these campaigns, some secondary schools are not letting go of their native mascots.

The mascot of the Agawam High School track team is the profile of an Aboriginal man wearing a pseudo headdress with the words “AGAWAM” filling the space where the headdress would be.

The name of the team is the “Agawam Brownies”.

Julia Hall, a 2021 graduate of Agawam High School and a current music education student at the University of New Hampshire, said the mascot was both inhumane and embarrassing.

“He’s an inhumane mascot because he represents someone’s culture. It’s not something you can represent. ‘Brownies’ is just racist, I don’t think there’s any watering it down,” she said.

She went on to say that because she was a member of the school marching band, she saw the reaction from the opposing stands when the team was introduced.

“Honestly, seeing the team go up was embarrassing, when they came up with the names, because [you could] seeing people looking at each other… it was embarrassing for me to have to be introduced like that and tell people that was the symbol we used – to reason for ourselves.

During her early high school years, she said the marching band got rid of the name “Marching Mohawks”. Mohawk is the name of a North American Native American tribe. Since the change, the group has been known simply as Agawam High School Marching Band.

But overall, at school, she found there was a large population of people who hadn’t “thought twice” about their sports team icon.

Twitter user Alex King, another AHS alumnus, posted his take on the school mascot.

“I was a swimmer for the Agawam, and we were making brownies for the opposing team to distract from our openly racist name,” he wrote in the thread.

In 2020, the Agawam City Council voted to keep the Agawam sports team mascot name and logo, according to reports from Hampden’s everyday voice.

The vote was spurred by a petition with 1,500 signatures calling for a mascot change.

And Agawam is not alone. Massachusetts has a total of 23 high schools with Native mascot names or iconography, according to the New England Anti-Mascot Coalition.

However, contrary to the rhetoric of the majority of the Native community, Aquinnah Wampanoag Tribe member Clyde Andrews told WBZ that Dartmouth High School’s Native mascot “pays homage to the Native Americans who walked this land.”

The name of Dartmouth’s mascot is the Indians. The logo is the profile of an Aboriginal person painted green.

Another Aquinnah Wampanoag Tribe member said the difference between an acceptable Native mascot and a disrespectful one, like the Cleveland Indians, is the imagery.

“In Cleveland,” says Sean Carney, a member of the Aquinnah Wampanoag Tribe, “you had a very cartoonish portrayal of a Plains Indian who really didn’t respect the culture.”

However, Carney thinks the icon used to represent the school, because it is not a caricature, should be viewed from a different angle.

“In Dartmouth, you have a historically accurate depiction of an Eastern Woodland Indian,” Carney explains. “And the name ‘Indian’ is not offensive on the face of it.”

The United American Indians of New England are currently working on a bill in Massachusetts that, if passed, would ban Native mascots in the state.

“Native mascots don’t bring honor to Native Americans, rather they mock our cultures and demand to be heard,” Newcomb said. “Unfortunately, not all districts choose the right side of history, which is why a law needs to be passed.”

Nohemi M. Moore