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A growing push to eliminate Native American mascots in Massachusetts schools

Redmen T-shirts and athletic gear were plentiful in the crowd at a forum on whether Tewksbury Memorial High School's Redman mascot should remain at the high school in Tewksbury, Mass., in 2016.John Blanding, Boston Globe staff

Brian Weeden never played sports for Barnstable High School, but he recalls watching in disgust as the football team shaved their hair into mohawks and the girls’ soccer team decorated their hair with feathers to show school pride.

He winced every time his classmates cheered for the “Red Raiders” and wore shirts depicting a caricature of a Native American man.

“It made me feel like our culture was being mocked,” said Weeden, 28, chairman of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe. Eventually, he transferred to Mashpee High School.

Driven by these painful memories, Weeden is lobbying for legislation to ban Native American mascots in the state’s public schools, a divisive issue that has stirred debate in Massachusetts and across the country.

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The bill would require about two dozen schools to abandon their current nicknames, bar the sale and distribution of materials with Native American symbols, and halt construction or renovation of team logo displays.

Last summer, during nationwide protests against racial injustice, opposition to American Indian nicknames gained momentum and spurred several schools to change their logos — including Barnstable High School, now called the Red Hawks.

But according to the Anti-Mascot Coalition, a New England-based advocacy group, at least 23 schools in Massachusetts use “racist and derogatory” symbols depicting Native American people and culture. They include the “Aztecs,” “Indians,” and “Chieftains,” and their jerseys bear caricatures of Native American people. At Agawam High School, teams are nicknamed the “Brownies” and are represented by a Native American man in a headdress.

Kisha James, a member of the Wampanoag Tribe of Aquinnah who supports the bill, said Native mascots are dehumanizing and can promote violence against Indigenous people.

“Mascot is just another word for pet,” she said. “It solidifies this idea that we’re not people. We’re costumes, we’re characters forever stuck in the past.”

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The fight to eliminate Native American nicknames and logos has met resistance from fans and in some cases spurred racial hostility, James said. She and her parents once attended a protest when the Cleveland Indians, represented by a Chief Yahoo logo, came to Fenway Park. A fan yelled “Go back to your casino” and spit in her parents’ faces, she said.

“It’s like settlers are hearing no for the first time and they don’t like it,” she said. “Getting rid of mascots and acknowledging racism humanizes us and a lot of people aren’t comfortable with that. Because if you do, you also have to acknowledge the other wrongdoings, like genocide.”

James hopes the bill will be a catalyst for broader reforms and conversations about the historic oppression of Indigenous people.

She said there is nearly unanimous support for the legislation within her tribe. However, the Wampanoag’s leader and chairwoman, Cheryl Andrews-Maltais, recently wrote a letter expressing “strenuous opposition” to the bill as written.

Her letter, which James posted on Twitter, raised concern that banning mascots would further erase Native American culture. But in an interview, she said “we fully support the premise and the mission to remove mascots and negative imagery wherever it exists.”

Andrews-Maltais criticized the bill as “too aspirational” and said it lacked a definitive timeline. She said the legislation was denied a “critical perspective” by excluding Native Americans in the drafting process.

But Weeden and James were both involved in creating the legislation. And, the bill’s lead sponsor, state Senator Joanne Comerford, said she was contacted by Native American leaders who encouraged her to introduce the bill.

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“I filed in partnership with them and I fought in partnership with them,” she said. “There is great and broad community support.”

Amid an intense debate over how American history should be taught in schools, supporters of the bill said it would give schools an opportunity to show students the difference between cultural appropriation and appreciation.

Since the 1980s, Rhonda Anderson, a member of the Mascot Steering Committee, has been pushing for schools to present a more accurate and comprehensive portrayal of Indigenous history and the contemporary issues Native people face.

Mascots “greenlight more overt racist behavior,” she said, adding that she has been met with hostility, harassment, and death threats at school committee meetings across the state.

“Once you start understanding our history, the answer about mascots becomes apparent,” she said. “Everyone wants to dress as Pocahontas but no one talks about how [Indigenous women] have the highest rate of murder and kidnapping in the entire continent. Everyone wants to dress up as an Indian chief, but no one wants to talk about how that savage, brutal look promotes mass incarceration and police brutality against Indigenous men.”

Weeden echoed this sentiment and said there are many ways to honor and appreciate Native cultures that don’t include mascots, such as teaching Native languages in schools and displaying Native flags and land rights posters.

“As we have this conversation, our tribe owns half of one percent of our ancestral territory,” Weeden said. “If Massachusetts really wants to start righting their wrongs, this bill is a drop in the bucket.”

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Julia Carlin can be reached at julia.carlin@globe.com.