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In the latest flashpoint within a far wider debate, Wakefield residents on Tuesday voted to keep the local high school’s Native American-themed logo by an 11-point margin, offering a nonbinding but public rebuke of the School Committee’s decision weeks earlier to eliminate the decades-old “Warrior” imagery.
Voters backed keeping the Native American mascot, 2,911 to 2,337, according to the town’s unofficial results. The “yes” votes accounted for more than 55 percent of the nearly 5,250 residents who cast a vote for the nonbinding ballot question — a substantial turnout in the 27,000-person town, where closer to 3,500 people have typically voted in recent town elections.
The ballot question campaign’s acrimonious rhetoric had deeply divided the Boston suburb, pitting residents who view the mascot as a source of town pride against those who say it’s racist and derogatory imagery that Native Americans groups have long pushed to remove in schools.
Yet, while it capped weeks of campaigning, Tuesday’s result carried the potential of only further inflaming the debate, in both Wakefield and beyond.
“The townspeople’s voices were heard,” said Brandon Flanagan, a Town Council candidate who supported keeping the logo. He said the seven-person School Committee, now with four new members, should reconsider its March decision to abolish the logo showing a stern-faced caricature of an Indigenous person framed by a headdress.
“I was proud to have adorned the warrior emblem on my helmet and my jersey” in high school, said Flanagan. “If they don’t [revisit the vote], they’re once again undermining the voices of the people of Wakefield.”
The campaign played out within a broader conversation about the use of such mascots, logos, or nicknames in both schools and professional sports.
Several Native American groups had urged school officials to retire the imagery after a wave of Massachusetts towns and cities — Pittsfield, Quincy, and Barnstable among them — had voted since last summer to do away with their own nicknames or mascots. Those pushing state legislation to prohibit such imagery in schools statewide quickly seized on Tuesday’s vote, arguing it’s a civil rights issue that shouldn’t be left to local voters to decide.
“We’ve seen people playing politics with this question time and time again,” said Jean-Luc Pierite, president of the board of directors of the North American Indian Center of Boston. “This is not going to be resolved town by town. This is ultimately something that is going to be resolved at the State House.”
The School Committee voted in late March to eliminate the Native American mascot by a 5-2 margin. The panel opted to keep the “Warrior” nickname.
It’s unclear, however, if or how the nonbinding vote could impact the decision-making of a newly elected School Committee.
Ami Ruehrwein Wall, who filed the ballot question petition and supports keeping the logo, won a seat on the School Committee by just 70 votes, defeating an incumbent, Greg Liakos, who was among the five committee members who voted to eliminate it at the March meeting. Two chose not to seek reelection, and two others were not on Tuesday’s ballot.
“It was not a coincidence I was the only incumbent School Committee member who was defending the vote to eliminate the logo, and was the loser in the race. I think there’s a clear connection there,” Liakos said Wednesday.
Wall, sworn in Wednesday, said she believes her fellow School Committee members “have to retouch” the subject.
“The town has spoken about what they want: They want some form of Native American imagery in their logo,” she said. “We have to have a transparent and an all-inclusive conversation. . . . This has riled the community — good, bad, or indifferent.”
The campaign split the town for weeks, with opposing lawn signs cropping up on neighboring lawns and logo supporters decrying that “cancel culture” had infiltrated what they view as a local issue.
Flanagan, who unsuccessfully sought a council seat while supporting keeping the logo, said he himself was the target of animosity. He wrote on Facebook that outside the polls where his supporters had gathered Tuesday, “one woman told young children to ‘Stay away from them; they’re all racists.’ ”
Those opposed to keeping the imagery said they’re confident the newly constructed committee still retains enough support to continue with the panel’s plans to identify a new mascot. Two of the three remaining incumbents voted to retire the logo, and at least two incoming members have spoken publicly in support of eliminating it.
“We really hope that Wakefield and neighboring towns don’t see this as a reflection of the entire town,” said Nicole Calabrese, a Wakefield native who led a ballot committee urging residents to vote against keeping the imagery.
“There are a lot of people in town too who felt like, ‘Oh my God, why are we talking about this?’” she said. “We feel like [the result] doesn’t necessarily take away from the main goal of removing the imagery.”
Twenty-five Massachusetts schools still use some form of them, according to a group called the New England Anti-Mascot Coalition.
A proposal filed in the Massachusetts House and Senate would, if passed, direct state education officials to create regulations prohibiting all Massachusetts public schools “from using an athletic team name, logo, or mascot” that names or refers to Native Americans.
“THIS is why we [must] ban Native American mascots at the state level,” state Senator Jo Comerford, a Northampton Democrat who filed the bill, wrote on Twitter Wednesday. “A racial justice, civil rights issue must not be left to a local vote.”