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WAKEFIELD — The candidates argued over how to pay for a new school and the best ways to address the prolonged street closure on Broadway. As far as Town Council debates go, the virtual event here could have played out in hundreds of towns across Massachusetts.
Until, that is, it turned to the “logo issue.”
There’s been harassment and cyberbullying, one candidate said. Dueling lawn signs have sprouted across the town. The discourse in one virtual forum — where a resident drew a comparison between Indigenous people and animals — was “embarrassing,” another candidate charged.
In this 27,000-person suburb north of Boston, the question of whether to eliminate Wakefield Memorial High School’s Native American Warrior logo has morphed from a School Committee discussion into a full-fledged and vitriolic political campaign.
When residents ultimately vote in an April 27 referendum, the ballot question is technically nonbinding. It also will come a full month after the town’s School Committee already voted to eliminate the school’s Native American logo — a stern-faced caricature of an Indigenous person, its head framed by a headdress. (The panel opted to keep the “Warrior” nickname.)
But its transformation into a polarizing political contest is laying bare the generational tension between what some in the predominantly white town view as a source of pride and others say is racist and derogatory imagery.
“This town is so divided. We’re so polarized,” Anne Danehy, a Town Council candidate, said at the April 1 debate. “It’s the people who have been here for generations, they’re feeling unwelcome. And it’s the people who have just moved here, and they’re feeling unwelcome. And it is a shame.”
Indigenous people and others have for years criticized Native American imagery in sport and school logos, but it was last summer’s demonstrations for social justice that catalyzed a newfound reckoning with their use, from small towns to professional franchises.
The Cleveland Indians in December said they would change their name, months after the owner of the Washington NFL franchise begrudgingly dropped its “Redskins” moniker following years of saying he would never change the name. In Massachusetts, state officials launched a commission to study and recommend changes to its state motto and seal, which depicts a disembodied arm holding a sword above the image of a Native American.
Since last summer, local officials in Pittsfield, Quincy, Barnstable, and a wave of other communities already have voted to eliminate Native American mascots, logos, or nicknames. (Twenty-five Massachusetts schools still use some form of them, according to a group called the New England Anti-Mascot Coalition.)
“It’s very important that we do not lose momentum, not just as communities of color and Indigenous people but as a society as a whole,” said Jean-Luc Pierite, president of the board of directors of the North American Indian Center of Boston, which is backing state legislation to prohibit the imagery in all public school team names or logos. “These images aren’t grounded in reality and are obviously racist.”
Change, too, came to Wakefield, where in late March the School Committee voted, 5-2, to retire its Native American logo, which had roots dating back to the 1940s.
It hardly ended the debate. Weeks earlier, and with the prospect of a School Committee vote, the Town Council approved a citizens petition signed by 15 residents— to put a nonbinding question on the ballot asking residents if they support keeping the school’s logo with “Native American imagery.”
The move is rare, though not unprecedented. Residents in the Western Massachusetts town of Montague voted in its own 2017 nonbinding resolution to keep its “Indians” name. Winchester residents did the same in 2000 to keep its “Sachems” name and logo — though 20 years later in July, the School Committee decided to eliminate it.
In Wakefield, the School Committee’s decision to hold its vote after a pair of public forums but before the referendum fanned frustration among the logo’s supporters. Signs adorned with an older version of the school logo — a side-profile image of a Native American in a headdress — quickly cropped up, urging residents to “Save the Warrior” or “Preserve Wakefield Pride.” An opposing ballot question committee formed, and signs declaring “Keep The Pride! Retire The Logo” followed.
A Facebook group set up in support of the question was later disabled amid what some logo supporters described as cyberbullying. One School Committee candidate wrote on Facebook that she didn’t want to publicly detail her personal stance, fearing she would be judged by voters on that issue alone.
“The ballot question has not enhanced the quality of the public discourse, it has degraded it. It’s politicized it, and it made it a partisan issue when it really should be a school and a civil rights issue,” said Greg Liakos, a School Committee member who voted to eliminate the logo and is running for another term.
“What’s happening in Wakefield is a microcosm of what’s happening in other parts of the state and across the country,” Liakos said. “It’s a reckoning with a history that is complex.”
To those who support keeping the logo, there are other concerns, including submitting to the nebulous idea of “cancel culture,” said Richard Tisei, a former state Senate minority leader and lobbyist who has lived in Wakefield for 40 years.
“I think there are people who are going to specifically vote to send a message, that they should be the one to decide . . . regardless of how they feel about the issue,” said Tisei, who supports keeping the logo.
The logo’s own history has been threaded through the debate. It was first designed in the 1940s by John Galvin, a revered late Army general whose name adorns the town’s middle school. Many in Wakefield also attribute the creation of the “Warrior” name to Galvin’s classmate, Richard Bayrd, a member of the Narragansett tribe — evidence, supporters say, that its intent wasn’t to stereotype or disrespect Native Americans.
The first known use of “Wakefield Warriors” was decades earlier in an 1890 Globe article, according to a School Committee presentation.
“I don’t want to erase it. I’m afraid that’s what’s going to happen: that we’re going to lose that history or tradition for our town,” said Ami Ruehrwein Wall, who filed the ballot question petition and is also running for School Committee. “If the voters are saying this is what we want to do, I feel as an elected official you have to listen.”
Tribal leaders, who often are met with arguments that the imagery represents town pride, roundly disagree.
“Of course you see pride no matter what your mascot is,” said Faries Gray, the sagamore, or chief, of the Massachusetts Tribe at Ponkapoag. “But when you’re made aware that it’s offensive to the people it’s referring to, it’s time to make an educated decision.”
That the town’s voters will now have a say on the logo worries those who want it gone. A “yes” vote in support of keeping the logo, albeit nonbinding, could spur a newly constructed School Committee — four of its seven seats are on the April 27 ballot — to reconsider the March decision, opponents fear.
The logo’s opponents also question whether keeping it should be decided by referendum in a town where 93 percent of the people are white and 0.1 percent, or about two dozen residents, are Native American.
“There are a lot of people who have lived in the town their whole lives who feel like they’re losing control and feel like outsiders are coming in and trying to change the town to something they don’t like,” said Nicole Calabrese, an investment manager and Wakefield native who’s leading a ballot committee urging residents to vote “no” on the question of keeping the existing logo.
“As someone who has lived here my whole life, I think that’s kind of foolish,” she said, adding she views the vote as a statement about Wakefield’s future. “I hate what a ‘yes’ vote would say about the town.”