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Ruling against Redskins renews debate

The US Patent Office ruled earlier this month that the Washington Redskins’ nickname is “disparaging of Native Americans” and that the team’s federal trademarks for the name must be canceled.

AP/file

The US Patent Office ruled earlier this month that the Washington Redskins’ nickname is “disparaging of Native Americans” and that the team’s federal trademarks for the name must be canceled.

The question “what’s in a name?” is as open-ended now as it was in Shakespeare’s time when it comes to the debate about sports teams and their use of Native American mascots, monikers, and logos.

About 59 high schools in Massachusetts use such images, according to the New England Anti-Mascot Coalition.

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The breakdown: 22 Indians, 18 Warriors, five Red Raiders, four Sachems, three Chieftains, one Aztec, two Braves, two Mohawks, one Tomahawk, and one Wamp — Braintree High School’s representation of Chief Wampatuck of the Mattakeesset tribe — according to the coalition’s website.

“And Massachusetts is not alone,’’ said Pete Sanfacon, who heads the group. “Many high schools throughout New England continue to use these nicknames and logos, which are racial stereotypes.”

The debate surfaces every few years. On June 18, the Appeals Board of the US Trademark and Patent office took the unusual step of canceling six of the Washington Redskins football team’s trademarks, ruling the name and logo denigrate Native Americans.

Locally, a handful of school districts have changed their mascots in recent years, including in Dedham, which in 2007 traded the image of a leering open-mouthed Native American man for a pirate to represent the district’s Marauders.

At the time, members of the Dedham High School Boosters Club said ongoing complaints prompted the decision to retire the logo that had been the face of school sports since the 1970s.

Similarly, Canton’s Blue Hills Regional Technical High School phased out the use of a Native American man for its Warriors sports teams’ image to a capital B and H — to represent the school’s name — with a feathered spear between the letters.

Superintendent James P. Quaglia said the switch was an attempt at sensitivity.

“Times do change, and we were trying to change gradually with them,’’ he said.

Still, Quaglia said, his graduation speech to students this year centered on their Warrior identity.

“Warriors fight for things they believe in,” he said.

Other Native American images south of Boston can be found at Bristol County Agricultural School in Dighton, home of the Chieftains, and at Apponequet Regional High School in Lakeville, whose Lakers logos include a marching Native American chief in full headdress, and also a feathered spear threaded through a red capital A.

In Hanover, the high school’s Indians athletic logo is signified by a gold Native American headdress hanging on the top corner of a blue capital H.

The Red Raiders at North Quincy High School use the controversial mascot Yakoo, a brave wearing war paint, a feathered headband, and carrying a North Quincy flag.

The caricature was created in the late 1950s by a student who drew the profile of a fellow Armenian-American student, according to reports.

The Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association, which has 366 member high schools, does not take a position on logo issues, said spokesman Paul Wetzel.

“That is up to individual schools to decide,’’ he said. “We do not get involved.”

Board members for the Massachusetts Center of Native American Awareness, however, are calling for an end to such practices.

They say they “find the use of mascots and accompanying stereotypical behavior to be an offensive and derogatory practice that belittles the culture and religion of Native Americans,’’ according to a position paper the group produced.

“Mascots dehumanize and objectify Native Americans, reaffirming the belief that Native people no longer exist or that they exist only in the media or as caricatures,” they said.

Middleborough’s school superintendent said nothing could be further from the truth for the town and schools whose proud sports tradition is known by the Sachems logo – the head and face of the type of Woodland Native American who once lived in the area.

Superintendent Roseli Weiss said she’s working to incorporate such rich heritage into districtwide learning. Recently, she commissioned the Middleborough High School art department to create a totem pole, called the Pole of Unity/Pole of One.

Animal images representing each of the district’s lower schools – including bobcat, husky, eagle, and tiger – build on one another from the bottom of the pole up and are topped with the high-school’s Sachem image.

As a tribe’s chief or holy man, the sachem represents the wisdom earned as students move through the school district and then on to college, the working world, or the military, she said.

“It’s a very positive sign using the Native American concept,’’ Weiss said. “I’m trying to build a sense of district.”

Many who live and work in the town fiercely agree.

“I’m proud to be a Sachem and everything for which it stands,’’ said resident and school alum Amie Nay.

John Healey, an audio/visual technician at the high school, said the sachem is a perfect symbol of one of the school’s goals: to create future leaders.

Comparing it to the situation with the Redskins is like apples and oranges, he said, rejecting the notion the symbol is derogatory to anyone. It’s quite the opposite, he said.

“It is a sign of admiration,’’ Healey said. “The word has not been used as a slur, the high school doesn’t use it for profit, and there is nobody being taken advantage of, or made fun of.”

Sanfacon said any assertion that logos are respectful “is incorrect and rather disingenuous.”

“If the educators at these high schools and school districts truly believe what they are doing is respecting Native American people, they should listen to [those people’s] voices as they call for an end to this practice,” he said.

Like Blue Hills, Foxborough’s athletic teams also use a warrior image, said its school superintendent, Debra Spinelli.

“Our students and our community view it as a symbol of strength,’’ she said.

But rather than insert the image into the center of the town’s new turf field at Foxborough High School, according to the original plans, school officials recently opted to go with the initials FHS, instead.

Omitting the logo was a nod to taxpayers who would have had to pay to rip up the field if the image needed to be removed, said School Committee chairman Bruce Gardner. But he said that wasn’t based on any duress.

“We have not heard any issues, concerns, or complaints to my knowledge, and we will remain the Warriors,’’ Gardner said.

“That’s where the pride is.”

Michele Morgan Bolton can be reached at michelebolton@ live.com.
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