Legislative bill would ban Native American mascots in Massachusetts public high schools

  • Athol High School’s Red Raider logo, shown here on the walls of Mallet Gymnasium during an Athol-Smith Academy basketball game this past winter, may have its days numbered if bills currently in state legislature that would ban public schools usage of Native American mascots eventually pass. STAFF FILE PHOTO

  • Mohawk Trail Regional High School voted last year to remove all vestiges of its Native American mascot although it elected to retain its team name, “Warriors.” While some schools in Massachusetts have either changed or are considering mascot changes, State Senator Jo Comerford (D-Northampton) continues to try and push a bill through legislature that would ban public school uses of Native American mascots. STAFF FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 7/17/2020 5:22:27 PM
Modified: 7/17/2020 6:26:04 PM

As discussion on Native American mascots and imagery heats up at the professional sports level, where Washington’s professional football team announced it was retiring the Redskins moniker this week, debate has also ramped up on the state level.

State Sen. Jo Comerford, D-Northampton, sponsored a bill, S.247, in accordance with House bill H.443 in January 2019, which would “ensure that no public school uses an athletic team name, logo or mascot which names, refers to, represents, or is associated with Native Americans, including aspects of Native American cultures and specific Native American tribes. The board shall establish a date by which any school in violation of said regulations shall choose a new team name, logo or mascot.”

Comerford said Friday that the bill continues to make its way through the Legislature. With increased debate regarding changing the state flag and seal (bills S.1877 and H.2776), she said the time is now to focus on these particular issues. Comerford was part of a rally held Thursday on the State House steps.

“The call to pass these bills is only growing,” Comerford said on Friday. “(Thursday’s) rally was an important indication of that. We have an indigenous agenda organizing group that is very active in the commonwealth. Both New England and statewide indigenous organizations are leading, but also fueled, perhaps more importantly, by Massachusetts tribal nations. For me, that’s a pretty profound call to action.”

Locally, the mascot debate has long been in the news regarding high school athletics. Just last year, the Mohawk Trail Regional School District School Committee voted to remove all vestiges of its Native American mascot although it elected to retain its team name, “Warriors.”

In 2017, the Gill-Montague Regional School District School Committee voted to change the Turners Falls High School mascot from the “Indians.” The school ultimately chose “Thunder” in 2018.

According to the Boston Globe, 37 Massachusetts schools have teams that use nicknames with Native American ties.

“This isn’t a new idea for many communities in the commonwealth that have already had the courage and thoughtfulness to go through this process,” Comerford said of school districts that have already changed their nicknames and logos. “Honestly, Western Massachusetts has helped lead the way in terms of the thinking on this.”

Athol High School made news in the late 1990s, when the American Indian Movement (AIM) approached the Athol-Royalston Regional School District School Committee to discuss the “Red Raider” used by the school for its athletics.

That subject did not reach a resolution, though it did coincide with a particularly lively debate taking place in southern Franklin County. In 2000, Frontier Regional School changed its mascot from “Redskins” to “Red Hawks,” which it still operates under. The retiring of Frontier’s 40-year-old name came in 1997, and a three-year battle followed that spawned fervent debate, a lawsuit and a school committee resignation.

The “Save the Redskins Committee” filed the lawsuit, which contended that the decision to oust the “Redskins” mascot was made when the school committee was out of compliance with the equal protection clause of the U.S. Constitution. The lawsuit was eventually dropped.

Frontier School Committee Chair Karl Koenigsbauer resigned over the issue in December 1999, saying it had “taken a toll” on him. The school chose Red Hawks as its new mascot in 2000, and Fleet Bank donated $1,000 for the school to buy new uniforms.

Comerford said she didn’t want to comment on specific circumstances, specifically mascot debates at Mohawk Trail and Athol, but hoped that conversations would continue and ultimately, a passage of the bill would provide guidance for districts.

“I wouldn’t presume to give them advice on an individual basis but I would thank any districts and schools that have already done so, would thank them for having these conversations,” she said. “We’ve heard testimony from some schools that are dealing with this. Our goal is to make a clear decision on this and we can implement it in a process that is clear for the schools involved and also gives them parameters in which to work.”

For example, the bill currently in the House and Senate says “a public school may continue to use uniforms or other materials bearing their prohibited athletic team name, logo or mascot that were purchased before a date prescribed by the board,” provided a set of requirements are met. That policy would be consistent with how other schools who have already gone through the process have handled uniform changes, phasing out uniforms with their old mascot and logo as new equipment was purchased.

This month alone, several Massachusetts high schools have already made plans to abandon their Native American mascots and logos. The Nashoba Regional School District School Committee voted earlier this month to cease using the school’s “Chieftains” nickname, which had been in use since the early 1960s. Barnstable High School is moving toward changing its “Red Raider” mascot, with the district expected to put the topic on its August meeting agenda.

“Tens of thousands of indigenous constituents across the state are telling us it’s time to make a change,” Comerford explained. “Research is showing us that in fact, it’s harmful both to native and non-native people to have these mascots. It leads to increased racial stereotyping. It’s hard to find a positive reason with so much lining up against it. It’s been wrong forever, but it’s intolerable now.”

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