The principal of Athol High School quietly removed signs emblazoned with the feathered headdress of the school’s Red Raider logo back in 1998. She didn’t think anyone would notice.
Instead, it caused an uproar. One alumnus reasoned any students on board with such a plan hadn’t yet developed a proper sense of tradition. Principal Randi Shenkman apologized and reinstated the logo. It remains on the wall of the school gym to this day.
“Personally, I think [the Red Raider] is disrespectful to Native Americans,” she told the Greenfield Recorder that year. “But that is not a major factor in this discussion.”
Athol is one of more than three dozen public schools in Massachusetts that use a caricature or nickname of an Indigenous person as a mascot. But even during this watershed moment of racial reckoning and with the retirement of the Washington Redskins name and logo, few have made plans to change or even discuss their mascots, despite years of criticism from students and alumni, as well as repeated statements of disapproval from tribal leaders in the state.
“It is just so redundant,” said Melissa Harding Ferretti, chairwoman of the Herring Pond Wampanoag Tribe. “Here we are in 2020, working again to educate officials about the blatant and destructive racism of these mascots.”
A review by the Globe found 37 Massachusetts schools with teams using nicknames with Native American ties. In recent weeks, thousands in Massachusetts have signed petitions protesting the use of Native American imagery by school sports teams. Organized efforts are underway to remove names such as the North Quincy Red Raiders, Millis Mohawks, Tewksbury Redmen, and Winchester Sachems.
The Nashoba Regional School committee voted unanimously to retire its Chieftain logo in early July. Committee members in Barnstable were scheduled to meet Wednesday to discuss the retirement of the Red Raider mascot. The Braintree mayor plans to meet with tribal leaders this week to discuss the town’s Wamps mascot.
On Monday, Washington NFL franchise owner Dan Snyder announced — albeit begrudgingly — that the team’s derogatory name would be retired after sponsors threatened to withdraw from agreements if it remained.
Many tribal leaders are encouraged by this recent push for change, which is bolstered by the social justice momentum of the Black Lives Matter movement. But they say the glacial pace of discussions over the years has been maddening.
“It is a bit frustrating, but that’s how it is to be Indigenous in America. We’ve had 400 years of frustration,” said Faries Gray, sagamore, or chief, of the Massachusett Tribe. “They say their mascots are honoring us and we say it is not. It should just be enough that we say it is not, but it never is.”
Take North Quincy. The school’s logo is the Yakoo, another cartoon of a scowling man with a headdress and spear. Town officials say the mascot is a caricature of alumnus Allan Yacubian, a retired Armenian-American dentist and longtime booster of the school.
A member of the Wampanoag tribe petitioned the school to change the mascot back in the 1980s after hearing of athletes “doing some horrific pep rally performances where they had a Native scalp a European,” according to a 2007 Globe article.
The Office of Civil Rights, a branch of the Department of Education, investigated in the 1990s whether the North Quincy mascot violated regulations that prohibit discrimination in schools that receive federal funds. The office ultimately found no evidence of a racially hostile environment at the school, writing “offensiveness is not the standard by which a Title VI racial-harassment claim can be assessed.”
Opposition to the Yakoo logo intensified again in 2017. “Offensive but legal should not be the standard for our district,” a parent group wrote in a letter at the time. Mayor Thomas Koch was unmoved by the effort then, calling the Yakoo a source of pride for the community.
Koch was more amenable to the idea of changing the mascot in an interview Tuesday with a Globe reporter, but admitted no proposals were currently on the docket for the school committee, which is also searching for a new superintendent and grappling with a return to school amid a pandemic.
“However the logo was originally designed, there is a perceived issue here and some people are offended,” said Koch.
In Melrose, there have been piecemeal efforts to step away from Native American imagery. Since the mid-1990s, the school’s logo had been stylized to resemble a dreamcatcher. In 2016, the school’s superintendent ditched the feathers in what she called “an interim measure” within a wider mascot discussion.
But four years later, the school still roots for the Red Raiders. Melrose School Committee Chairman Ed O’Connell said no formal discussion is underway to change the mascot.
Officials elsewhere took a similar stance. Agawam Mayor William Sapelli denied that their Brownies mascot relates to their Native American logo, and a spokesperson for the superintendent’s office in Athol said, “The committee didn’t have time to talk about [the issue] at this point in the year.”
Some schools in the state have moved away from Native American logos and mascots. Dedham and Watertown bid farewell to their logos depicting Indigenous men in headdresses back in 2007 and 2008, respectively, while Natick transitioned from the Redmen to the Redhawks in 2012.
“I don’t know if I trust that the communities will do the right thing,” said Heather Leavell, a former Melrose resident who rallied for a mascot change back in 2016. “I sometimes think they will only get rid of the mascot if they are forced to.”
The mother of two children in the Melrose school system is now counting on statewide legislation. The House and Senate are currently considering bills that would prohibit the use of Native American mascots by public schools in the Commonwealth. Similar legislation has surfaced several times in the past few years. A rally in support of the mascot ban, as well as an effort to create a commission to reexamine colonialist imagery in the state seal and flag, is set to take place on the steps of the State House Thursday morning.
Those defending the mascots argue they are not meant to be derogatory but to honor the Native American roots of their towns. Gray, of the Massachusett Tribe, said this argument is not supported by Indigenous people themselves.
“The Indigenous are not your mascot. We are living people that are still here and not something just named in passing in your history books,” said Gray. “But it is also inaccurate. We were primarily farmers and fishermen here in Massachusetts. When all these mascots depict us as warriors, I think of how we were trying to protect our land and way of life from Colonists.”
A recent review of 19 studies on the effects of Native American mascots around the United States found that they were consistently associated with Indigenous students having lower self-esteem, as well as non-Native students holding negative stereotypes about Native Americans. There was no evidence from any of the studies that such mascots fostered positive or beneficial views of Native Americans.
“If you want to honor us,” said Gray, “how about you listen to us when we say we’re not honored?”