TEWKSBURY — Sporting red T-shirts, varsity football jerseys, and baseball caps, Tewksbury Memorial High School students packed the school gymnasium Wednesday night to defend their Redmen school mascot.
Students sat with parents and others in the bleachers in a display of support for the Native American in feathered headdress that for decades has been a source of school and town pride.
"I stand for keeping the name of our mascot as the Redmen," said Briana Higgins, 17, vice president of the senior class and captain of the girls' tennis team. "It's a source of pride and what brings us together as a school. Being a Redmen is what our sports teams aspire to be and what our fans cheer."
School officials are weighing whether Redmen should be changed to something that could not be construed as offensive to Native Americans or contribute to racial stereotyping. The public forum, which drew more than 400 people, was a first step to gauge residents' opinion.
"I went to many games," said Bruce Panilaitis, a Tewksbury selectman and father whose two sons played on school teams. "I cheered them and their teammates, just as loud as anyone."
But, he added, "It is simply time to drop the Redmen name."
Two elementary school parents recently wrote to school Superintendent John H. O'Connor, raising questions about the name, after their children received forms to order Redmen team apparel. "Redmen" is also the nickname for youth athletic programs in the Merrimack Valley town of about 29,000 people.
A total of 43 people spoke during the 2½-hour forum, 29 in favor of keeping the Redmen name, and 14 who wanted to change it.
"We are all Redmen," said TJ Contalonis, a senior football captain, who was the first student to speak in favor of keeping the name. "Our mascot is part of our culture."
Scott Ringwood, a member of the Class of 1997, dressed in his old number 88 Redmen football jersey.
"I am very proud to be of this tribe of Redmen," Ringwood said, pumping his right fist in the air. "Political correctness has gone too far . . . I never really looked at [Redmen] as a mascot. I just saw it as a logo, never in a demeaning way."
But proponents of the mascot change spoke just as passionate and forcefully.
"This mascot sends a subtle message of oppression and discrimination that can desensitize after years of viewing it on uniforms, at sporting events, and on school grounds," said Nicole Burgett-Yandow, a parent of two children, ages 3 and 5, and the first to speak in favor of the change. "By continuing to support the use of this mascot and name, our community is teaching our children that it is acceptable to misappropriate a culture we know virtually nothing about."
"Tewksbury is a town of great pride," said Amanda Kuffoh, 17, a senior. "The people of Tewksbury are not racist, but the word 'Redmen' is."
Tewksbury High is one of about 40 schools in Massachusetts that use a Native American reference as its school logo. Other examples are the Saugus and Winchester Sachems, the Algonquin Tomahawks, and the Braintree Wamps.
But other schools have followed the lead of national universities and colleges and dropped Native American nicknames. In 2008, Natick High changed its "Redmen" moniker to the "Red and Blue," and later to the "Redhawks."
On Tuesday, Amherst College in western Massachusetts announced it would drop its unofficial mascot, "Lord Jeff," inspired by the school's namesake, Lord Jeffery Amherst. Amherst was the commander of British forces in North America during the French and Indian War, and supported giving blankets laced with the smallpox virus to Indians to advance the goal of destroying their race.
The comments during the forum at Tewksbury High will be considered as part of a process that will also include outreach to local Native American groups. O'Connor said Wednesday night he received a letter in support of keeping the name from the Greater Lowell Indian Cultural Association.
He plans to meet with Tewksbury High students before making a recommendation to the School Committee, which is ultimately charged with making the decision.
"We are just at the beginning of this discussion," O'Connor said.