Following the death of George Floyd, a Black man, at the hands of a White Minneapolis police officer, Americans are now paying closer attention to the way the country treats minority citizens and groups, such as members of the Black community, Hispanic community and Native American community, especially when it comes to their history and heritage.
Locally, that spotlight shines brightest on the use of Native American logos, images and nicknames including on the state flag. In Winchester and Tewksbury, as well as neighboring towns such as Billerica, Wakefield and Melrose, debate rages on, though the narrative shift is noticeable among residents and elected officials from “preserving history” to “removing offensive imagery.”
Only four years ago, in the spring of 2016, members of the Tewksbury School Committee voted 4-1 to keep the Redmen mascot, even though then-superintendent John O’Connor recommended a change.
20 years ago, former Winchester School Committee Chair Eli Bortman raised the idea of changing the Sachem mascot. Residents disliked his suggestion so much they started a recall petition to remove him from the committee. The town voted down the name change.
But under the heading of “what’s old is new again,” the push to change Native American mascots has resurfaced.
One Winchester resident, Suzanne Bielawski, wrote in a recent letter: “I am here to describe to you the disgust and disappointment I feel in the educational board of Winchester.” She was referring to the town condemning hate crimes and police brutality, yet ignoring “the original sin of our own town,” which she described as its founding on the “deprivation of Native Americans.”
She asked that the town do better.
Another Winchester resident, Kaye Nash, remembered a nine-year old at a recent vigil for racial justice pointed out how the Pledge of Allegiance talks about “liberty and justice for all,” yet the town still “has a Native mascot.” The nine-year old argued the town’s words and actions don’t match.
But what is the history of these mascots? Do they go back centuries, to a time before any current resident of Tewksbury or Winchester was alive? No, in fact, some people living in either town right now graduated high school before the towns decided to adopt Native American imagery.
According to Emmet Millett, a former Tewksbury Memorial High School football player who spoke with Town Crier sports editor Jamie Pote several years ago, the football team wasn’t called the Redmen during his time in the 1940s and 50s. He added they weren’t called the Redmen even through 1956 when he served as Vice President of the Tewksbury Athletic Association.
Another player, Joel Trull, confirmed the team wasn’t called the Redmen in the early 50s; however, Jim Cunningham said the school used the term by 1961. This means the nickname originated sometime between 1956 and 1961.
In Winchester, resident Nancy Schrock, a member of the town’s archival center and historical society, noted the name Sachem didn’t appear until 1950. Prior to that, teams were known as the Red-and-Black. The logo came along even later, in 1977, created by high school student Simon Donovan and based not on any actual Native Americans here in Massachusetts, but rather, on popular imagery from movies and TV.
State Senate weighing in
Currently, there are two bills in the State Senate dealing with this topic: one involves changing the state seal and state flag while the other would require all communities to remove any Native American mascots.
The lead sponsor of the bill to change the state seal and flag, Senator Jason Lewis (D-Winchester), noted how 2020 is the 400th anniversary of the Plymouth landing by European settlers. He wanted to see images and symbols removed that promote racist stereotypes.
“We need to tell our history truthfully,” the Senator, who represents several communities under fire for Native American mascots such as Winchester, Wakefield and Melrose, said.
When asked if he favored allowing individual communities to decide whether to remove Native American mascots, he said ideally each community should make that decision and do the right thing. He suggested each community speak with Native American students and leaders and hear how these mascots perpetuate negative stereotypes.
Sen. Lewis said town and city leaders need a local process to educate the community. It’s already happening in some communities like Winchester where residents have come forward to ask for/demand change.
He hoped the Winchester School Committee would vote soon to remove the Sachem name and mascot (the School Committee scheduled a vote for Tuesday night, but the Middlesex East publication deadline ends before the scheduled vote).
However, with some communities, as the Senator noted, “not taking the issue seriously,” removing mascots may require a statewide bill make its way through the House and Senate and onto Governor Charlie Baker’s desk.
Would the governor sign such a bill? Sen. Lewis said Gov. Baker commented in the past how “we need to have this conversation.” The Senator expects the governor to sign the legislation if and when it comes before him.
Why now? Sen. Lewis said times have changed, at least since Winchester brought this issue forward 20 years ago. They’ve even changed since Tewksbury voted down the removal of the Redmen name and logo only four years ago. George Floyd and countless other Black men and women, victims of police brutality, were still alive four years ago.
“We have a different understanding of racial justice,” Sen. Lewis remarked. “People are more educated and anti-racist now.”
Unfortunately, this remains a controversial issue in many communities. Why? For many people, it’s all about history and tradition. In Tewksbury, residents who argued in favor of the mascot four years ago cited pride for the influence of Native Americans on both national and local culture.
“We try to be the best we can be on and off the field to honor the Redmen name,” said former student and captain TJ Contalonis during a public hearing on the matter. “Each and every one of those games was won by Redmen.”
One woman, speaking at the same public hearing, argued the name can’t be derogatory, since “that is what they call themselves.” She claimed some Native American heritage, saying her grandmother was raised on a Native reservation.
Another suggested taking away the Redmen name would “ruin the spirit of the town.”
In Winchester, those against removing the Sachem logo and mascot often cite similar reasons: it’s history and tradition and honors the Native people who live and lived here. Does it though?
Liora Norwich, the Executive Director for the Network for Social Justice in Winchester, gave a presentation on the need to change the mascot/logo. Norwich shared a quote with the School Committee by Faries Gray, Sagamore of the Massachusetts Tribe, which stated that “It is a bit frustrating, but that’s how it is to be Indigenous in America. They say their mascots are honoring us and we say it is not. It should just be enough that we say it is not, but it never is.”
Sen. Lewis said while he appreciates the pride students have for their schools and sports teams, it has more to do with the teammates and community than the mascot.
“We need to reckon with our history,” he advocated, “and recognize it’s offensive and harmful to both Native and non-Native people.”
He also pointed out, as did Mark Herlihy, the Associate Dean of Arts & Sciences at Endicott College, that people have been mispronouncing the Sachem name for decades. It should be pronounced “sock-em.”
The Senator compared the Sachem to the state seal, saying neither honor Native people.
“Look at what Native people are saying,” he suggested. “They’ll tell you (mascots) don’t honor them or their heritage; they misappropriate their culture and promote stereotypes.”
He said the bottom line involved listening to people “who have the right to speak and be heard.”
It’s not just the Senator, but Norwich also said how native peoples have declared that native mascots do not honor them, but dehumanize and denigrate them, hurt and cause physiological and psychosocial harm. Mascots hurt native peoples by making them invisible, placing them in the past instead of raising their voices as contemporary figures in our society.
The bill in the Senate relating to schools and communities removing Native American mascots, co-sponsored by Sen. Lewis, was heard and favored by the Education Committee and it would require all districts to undertake a process to replace them. Both bills, including the one pertaining to the state seal, remain in the Senate Ways and Means Committee. Sen. Lewis said he advocates for both bills.
Time for a change?
The two bills currently in the Senate didn’t come about by accident. Sen. Lewis said his constituents brought this issue forward. They support removing Native American imagery and logos. He pointed out, however, this doesn’t mean there aren’t people in favor of keeping Native American mascots. If there are, though, they’re quieter than they were even just four years ago.
At a recent Winchester School Committee meeting, held via Zoom, eight residents called in to discuss the committee’s potential vote on removing the Sachem logo. All eight stood in favor of its removal.
In Tewksbury, although the School Committee eventually made no change to the Redmen name, debate four years ago divided the town. The “no’s” may have won, but the “yes’s” are making a strong comeback in 2020.
On June 5, TMHS alumnus Grace Morris started an online petition to change the Redmen mascot. The petition’s summary reads:
“Tewksbury is a town that leads in education, sports, and community. However, with a Native American mascot, we are teaching the youth that cultural appropriation is OK. It is time for us as a community to recognize that it is time for change.”
Though the minority, even four years ago some residents strongly urged for the removal of the Redmen mascot.
“The people of Tewksbury are not racist,” former high school student Amanda Kuffoh said at a public hearing. “But the name ‘Redmen’ is.”
Speakers at that hearing often referred back to a statement made by the American Psychological Association in 2005, which stated, “the continued use of Indian mascots, symbols, etc., is a form of discrimination.” In 2001, the Office of Civil Rights called for an end of native images and team names.
So, is it time for a change? Many seem to think so. It’s quite possible the minority have now become the majority.
“This is long overdue,” Sen. Lewis admitted. “Racial justice is long overdue, too.”
He noted how change takes time, but it’s been 20 years in Winchester and four in Tewksbury. It could be time today.
As Bielawski argued in her letter, specifically calling out the School Committee: “I am here to say DO BETTER. Don’t just say you will, show it. An easy start is to take down this racist mascot.”
(Brendan Foley, Jamie Pote, Cassia Burns and Michelle Visco contributed to this report)