For decades, athletes at Tewksbury Memorial High School have called themselves Redmen, proudly wearing sweat shirts and jackets that display the nickname or image of a Native American in a feathered headdress.
But when Linda Thomas’s children came home from elementary school with forms to order Redmen apparel, she balked.
“I just couldn’t do it. I didn’t feel like it was right,” said Thomas, who moved to Tewksbury six years ago. “I’ve been uncomfortable with having that as the town mascot.”
Spurred by Thomas and another parent, Superintendent of Schools John E. O’Connor has scheduled a public forum Jan. 27 to discuss whether it is time for a change.
Supporters are rallying behind the mascot, however, joining a Facebook group called “REDMEN . . . HERE TO STAY” and buying T-shirts to wear at the upcoming meeting, which begins at 6 p.m. at the high school.
“What makes it special is that for us, it’s always been a symbol of pride and tradition and sportsmanship and teamwork,” said Heidi DeSisto, who graduated from Tewksbury High in 1989 and now has children in the school system. “I want my kids to be able to be Redmen.”
DeSisto, whose Facebook group has attracted more than 1,400 members, said the Redmen name and logo have always been viewed by locals in a positive light. She said she has reached out to Native Americans in the area and “haven’t found anyone offended by it.”
“It has a long history in the town,” she said. “It’s our logo, it’s what we go by. It’s never been a question to anyone.”
Colleges and high schools across the country have come under increasing pressure in recent years to drop their Native American-themed mascots. In November, the German sneaker company adidas announced it would offer design resources and financial assistance to schools that wish to create new identities and rebrand themselves. (Participating schools must sign a three-year commitment to buy adidas products.)
After Thomas read about the adidas offer, she and another resident e-mailed the superintendent and aired their objections to the Redmen name at a School Committee meeting in December.
“As a result of that, I decided to host a forum to give residents an opportunity to weigh in on the logo issue,” O’Connor said. He also plans to conduct a poll of students in February, and will present his findings and recommendations to the School Committee in March or April. “This is a very personal issue for lots of people,” he said.
Approximately 40 high schools in Massachusetts still use Native American mascots, nicknames, or logos, according to Peter Sanfaçon, founder of the New England Anti-Mascot Coalition.
There still are a number of Indians, Warriors, and Sachems, in addition to the Algonquin Tomahawks and the Braintree Wamps.
In 2008, Natick High School dropped its Redmen nickname and became the Red and Blue. Many protested, and in 2012 students at the high school voted to switch to the Redhawks. Still, some Natick residents and alumni longed for the old nickname, and a group of diehard fans launched a website called www.redmenforever.org.
In Tewksbury, Anne Seichter would like to see the Redmen name dropped. Born and raised in town, she graduated from Tewksbury High in 1999, and understands that her hometown is attached to the name.
“We’re very proud of our Redmen,” she said. “Football was always big in our town. I totally understand the pride that goes with it, and the honor.”
But when she heard about the push to change the name of the Washington Redskins, and other schools moving away from Native American mascots, she began thinking it was time for Tewksbury to change, too.
“It’s a nationwide issue,” she said. “Now that we know better, we can do better. . . . We kind of need to get with the times.”
Tom “Eagle Rising” Libby, who lives in Lowell and serves as chief of the Greater Lowell Indian Cultural Association, said the move by Tewksbury school officials to hold a public forum to discuss the issue is “a good thing.”
As far as the Redmen term goes, Libby said it “bothers me just a little bit” and “it’s definitely not PC.,” but he also acknowledged that keeping the nickname may “not necessarily be a bad thing.”
It can work “as long as you’re being respectful about things,” he said. “You don’t see anyone up in arms about the Fighting Irish.”
Libby said Native American mascots and logos that are historically accurate can be viewed as a source of pride.
“There are some very tastefully done emblems,” he said, citing the Florida State Seminoles and Chicago Blackhawks as positive examples.
(On the flip side, he was offended by a cartoonish logo that was once used by the Cleveland Indians.)
Libby said it is not his place to decide the Redmen debate; it should be up to the community and the Native American residents who live in Tewksbury.
“Ultimately the people of that town have to live with their decision,” he said.