On an overcast afternoon in October, three middle-school-age boys ambled up the sidewalk on Depot Street in the Central Berkshire town of Dalton. Stopping here and there to peer at the Housatonic, their hometown river, they soon passed a long canvas banner, about the length of a five-yard penalty, zip-tied to the chain-link fence. Its message in bold white-on-blue letters was unavoidable to those passing by: “HOME GAME FRIDAY.”
I grew up in Dalton and had been on Depot Street countless times. This visit, what caught my eye was a certain symbol, on the wane but still prevalent around town. Under the silhouetted laces of a football and the school’s initials was the illustrated figure of a stereotyped American Indian man wearing a feathered headdress, an image formerly used as the logo of Wahconah Regional High School.
In my old high school, where white students outnumber students of color about 9 to 1 and few, if any, Native American students attend, Wahconah administrators acknowledge such imagery is problematic and needs to change. In recent years, a growing movement of Native American activists and their supporters have pushed the issue to the forefront of discussions in the state and around the country. Pending state legislation seeks to prohibit Native American mascots at public schools in Massachusetts.
“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,” reports the Massachusetts Center for Native American Awareness, an advocacy group, in an outline of its policy positions.
An increasing number of districts are listening, and are changing their Native American mascots or logos. To Dalton’s west, for example, Pittsfield’s School Committee decided in 2020 it would stop using its “Braves” mascot at Taconic High School. But supporters of a statewide ban count more than 20 Massachusetts school districts that still deploy such symbols, as well as nicknames like the Indians, the Red Raiders, the Sachems, and the Warriors, which remains the name of Wahconah’s sports teams. Heated debates have erupted in some communities.
This April, a majority of voters in Wakefield, north of Boston, endorsed keeping their high school’s Warrior logo, after the School Committee had decided to retire it. “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,” Wakefield voter Ami Ruehrwein Wall told The Boston Globe at the time. (Wall has since been elected to the School Committee.)
A statewide law would help defuse local tensions over what state Senator Jo Comerford of Northampton asserts is a broader civil rights issue. “The burden of necessary change shouldn’t fall to local communities,” says Comerford, the bill’s lead sponsor in the Senate. “This is one of the ways the Commonwealth seizes this racial justice moment and does the right thing.”
In Dalton, the recent opening of a new, state-of-the-art school building offered Wahconah a clean slate. The school began phasing out its Native American logo in 2019, the same year voters in the seven towns that make up the Central Berkshire Regional School District approved $41 million for the new facility.
I now live in Wisconsin but wanted to pay a final visit to what was left of the school I remembered, opened in 1961 and set to be razed later this year. I also was interested in signs of how deeply my old high school community was engaged in these conversations. So in October, just in time for one of Wahconah’s last home football games of the season, I traveled back to Dalton to see how much had changed and how much remains the same.
I graduated from Wahconah in 1994 and have only recently realized how the school’s identity through 60 years has borrowed from a homogenized version of Native American culture, starting with its Warriors nickname. My mother, a 1970 Wahconah graduate, shared examples of Wahconah appropriating American Indian symbols in yearbooks — which were known as “The Arrow” — from the school’s first decade. A spirit club called simply “Tribe” existed into the 1990s. The drama club logo continues to feature comedy and tragedy masks stylized as Native American faces.
In August, photos popped into my Facebook feed from a school open house that invited the public to stroll the halls of the old school building before it closed for good. An image of the auditorium evoked fond memories of high school musicals, Anything Goes and The Music Man, but others were jarring. In the gym, the old headdressed logo was painted wide across the half-court floorboards. A hallway mural portrayed an American Indian man sitting cross-legged with an open book in his lap. And in the cafeteria, opposite walls were decorated with paintings of the faces of the fabled couple Wahconah and Nessacus.
A legend passed down through generations of Wahconah students is promoted on the “Our History” page of the school website. It centers on the princess Wahconah, who secured the hand of her suitor, Nessacus, in a parental test of worthiness that involved a river, a canoe, and a bit of lovestruck deception. It is a tale of unknown provenance and uncertain authenticity, but the origin story has long been etched in the minds of Wahconah graduates.
I’ve thought a lot lately about that legend. Wahconah is a common name in Berkshire County, adopted for the golf course in Dalton and the baseball park in Pittsfield, as well as Wahconah Falls Brook and Wahconah Falls, a state park on the Dalton and Windsor town line. The name’s true origins are hazy, but the earliest written account I could find was in an 1852 book about the region by Pittsfield journalist and historian J.E.A. Smith, writing under the pseudonym Godfrey Greylock. Smith claimed he got the story from “a young Indian of the civilized Stockbridge tribe, who had come from his exile in the Far West, to be educated at an Eastern college.” Smith left his source unnamed.
More than a century and a half later, the legend’s uncertainty fills me with unease. Was it a piece of fiction? Even if true, could we rightfully claim it as ours?
The wooded hills and valleys that encircle Dalton are among the ancestral lands of the Mohican tribe, the People of the Waters That Are Never Still. The tribe was uprooted by encroaching European-Americans and in the 1800s settled in Wisconsin, where it is known as the Stockbridge-Munsee Community. (The tribe maintains a presence in Massachusetts, including with an office in Williamstown.) Their historic lands span from the Hudson Valley to the Housatonic Valley, a territory that would encompass the Berkshire County of my childhood. Long before I called it home, it was theirs.
Shawna Newcomb, a sixth-grade science and social studies teacher in Hanover, represents the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe in the coalition that is pushing for the anti-mascot legislation. I reached her by phone to ask about the coalition’s efforts and her interactions with communities such as Dalton that are rethinking their use of Native American symbols.
“Many adults right now don’t know the true history, but they’re learning it and they are choosing on their own without being forced by the state to be on the right side of history,” she says. Her own middle school changed its mascot this year from the Hanover Indians to Hanover Hawks. “They are setting an example for their students, for their children to do the same thing. But unfortunately, there is a need [for legislation] because there are many other people, many of the other districts, that don’t think like that.”
The legislation now awaits action by the state Senate Committee on Ways and Means, and Newcomb attributes the new momentum to the rise in support last year for the Black Lives Matter movement, which “shed light on other issues, including Indigenous issues,” she says. “With that momentum, we’re really trying to get this passed now.”
Several Massachusetts tribes have called for the ban. Mascots harm Native American children by stereotyping all Indigenous people as “aggressive male warriors from the past,” said a letter to lawmakers from the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe. “Further, it is problematic when people who are not Native American utilize our identities, names, images, cultural practices for their own purposes.”
The National Congress of American Indians, the oldest and largest national organization representing tribes and their members, also backs the Massachusetts legislation as part of its broader opposition to Native American mascots. The organization successfully pressured Washington, D.C.’s professional football team and Cleveland, Ohio’s baseball team into changing their names, and this fall, it spoke out against the Atlanta Braves for refusing to change the team’s name and for encouraging the “tomahawk chop” mimicked by fans, including during the World Series.
The organization wrote a letter to Massachusetts political leaders in 2020. “Indian Country’s longstanding position on this issue has been made abundantly clear for decades — we are not mascots, and we will not tolerate being treated as such,” it read.
In Dalton, October 7 was the last day of classes in the old school. When I arrived in town on the evening of October 22, the school was fenced off. Asbestos abatement had begun. The trees and shrubs in front of the single-story building had already been cut down. Earth-moving machines awaited their next assignments. The building is slated to be demolished before 2022.
Next door, the new two-story school was abuzz with activity. As Wahconah’s undefeated football team, with state title aspirations, prepared for its first home game since the move, fans, students, parents, and other curious visitors embarked on self-guided tours of the new building. In the light-filled entrance atrium, a gray-haired woman wearing a face mask looked around. “This is magnificent,” she said.
Principal Aaron Robb was there to greet her. “Yeah, I know,” he replied. “Wish I could take credit.” Robb, a 1991 Wahconah graduate, started teaching here in 1997 and has been principal since 2016. I asked him about the old Warrior logo. It was a piece of clip art obtained in the mid-1990s by longtime football coach Gary Campbell Jr. — it was never official, Robb said, but was ubiquitous at the school for more than two decades. Before that, football helmets had displayed a cursive “W.”
A few years ago, the district superintendent at the time, Laurie Casna, and the School Committee began reconsidering the Native American logo in light of the proposed anti-mascot legislation. “Her opinion was, why should we wait for it to pass?” Robb said. “Why don’t we be a little bit more proactive?”
The old logo was left out of the design of the new school. “At my level,” Robb said, “there was an expectation put forth that we need to move away from that.” That remains the expectation of the current superintendent, Leslie Blake-Davis.
The replacement logo is a bold, blue “W,” which could be seen painted on the floor of the new gym as the Wahconah girls’ volleyball team took on Mount Greylock Regional School. The rest of the school still had a just-moved-in look. One trophy case was partially filled, another totally empty. The old logo was nowhere to be found.
On Wahconah’s new back patio, which looks up to the football field, the 12th Man booster club offered pregame refreshments, music, and merchandise for sale — T-shirts in black, blue, pink, and gray; sweatshirts; baseball hats; coffee mugs of various shapes and sizes. All had the current “W” logo. In the crowd milling around, some fans still wore old school gear with the former symbol.
I caught up with Glenn Lagerwall, president of the 12th Man club whose son, Devin, is a freshman football player at Wahconah. “We want to support the school. That’s what we do,” Lagerwall said. “If this is what the School Committee says and this is what the school administration says, of course we’re going to comply with that.” He was wearing a sweatshirt with the old logo displayed on the front, but the club doesn’t include that design in its new apparel.
Senior lineman Wyatt George stopped to say hello to Lagerwall before suiting up for the night’s game against Northampton High, Wahconah’s Route 9 rival. On the front of George’s T-shirt, sleeves torn off, was the “W” logo. On the back it said, “New logo, same tradition of excellence.”
The old Warrior logo may be absent in the new school, but it is still prominently displayed on the sports fields outside, which were not included in the district’s construction referendum. It is on the soccer field scoreboard. It appears twice on the football scoreboard. It’s among the decals on the sides of athletics department utility vehicles. It’s on the sweatshirts worn on the sidelines by athletics staff members, including Coach Campbell. The school put stickers of the new “W” design on football helmets to replace stickers of the old logo, but the American Indian logo will remain stitched on the sleeves of players’ jerseys until the uniforms are replaced.
Things have changed. Things remain the same — for now. The pending state legislation would allow schools like Wahconah to gradually phase out such symbols, to minimize the financial burden on districts. Robb said the football team is due for new jerseys in the coming years, and those jerseys will get the “W.”
No change is planned for the team’s name. “The name Warriors has been discussed among various stakeholders,” Blake-Davis, the superintendent, told me in an e-mail. “It was informally agreed that the term has positive implications around strength and bravery.”
Dropping the old logo was controversial two years ago. “Shameful,” one person commented on a July 2019 Facebook post about the change. “That has been our logo for years.” Others commented: “Stupid,” “Nothing wrong with the original,” and “Too many people get offended easily.”
Lagerwall, recalling some of those reactions, pointed to the press box behind the football field’s home bleachers. “Wahconah Warriors” was spelled in a partial circle across the building, but the center was bare. A large American Indian figure made of wood was removed from the wall after the district made the decision to phase out that logo. Lagerwall compared its removal to “knocking down any monument” to the past, but said that fans’ objections have mostly quieted since then.
“Warrior Pride” still motivates the team, he said, and he cited the legend of Wahconah and Nessacus. “Native American history is part of our culture here, and my personal opinion is, to retract that or to take that away is to take away a piece of our history, and that’s too bad.”
I noted that the school was mostly white when I attended, and its demographics haven’t changed much. Could Wahconah truly claim that history — even the legend — as “our history”? Lagerwall said he took my point, but he cast “Warrior Pride” as an opportunity for the school to teach that history and culture to students.
To those who complain about losing a long-cherished logo, Newcomb, the Mashpee Wampanoag activist, countered that the decades-old traditions of schools like mine are quite brief compared with the thousands of years of Indigenous history on this continent. She applauded Wahconah for retiring its logo, but she is deeply troubled by Wahconah’s and other Massachusetts schools’ continued use of the nickname Warriors. As the mother of an infant, she says she wouldn’t send her daughter to such a school.
Newcomb explained that she cannot separate the term “warriors” from the historic connotations it still holds for Native Americans. “They had to fight for their land. They had to fight for their culture. They had to fight for their language to be preserved,” she says. “You can’t pretend that your game against another football team compares at all to what our ancestors have gone through.”
Though Wahconah is holding on to its nickname, local views have shifted toward acceptance of the old logo’s retirement, Robb said. He includes himself: “I’ll be honest, it’s taken me some time to come to terms with it.” But ultimately, he accepted that the logo was offensive to many. “You have to kind step out of your own history and your own past and your own connection to it,” he said. “Change happens. Change is inevitable.”
David Paulsen is a writer in Wisconsin. Send comments to email@example.com.