My letter to the Editor at the Brattleboro Reformer, under the headline “Letter: Do not erase, but do not celebrate or emulate either”, posted 2:36 pm on May 1, 2017 and ran today, May 2, 2017.
Editor of the Reformer:
Last week, following a unanimous vote by the members of Brattleboro’s Representative Town Meeting, the Select Board officially adopted a resolution to make a change in observance from Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples’ Day. I’d like to offer a short explanation toward understanding why this is both appropriate and timely, and partly in response to Mr. Nickerson’s countering letter this week.
The process of adopting this change has been straightforward, thorough, and widely supported, and I am grateful for that public validation. Following direction from the Board last year, a petition was utilized to gather the requisite 5 percent of the Town’s registered voters’ signatures. With help from several friends, about 450 names were collected in short order, and presented to the Town Clerk, who vetted them and certified the threshold had been met. The petition was presented to the Select Board, who ultimately placed it on the Warning for the 2017 RTM. In the time that I was personally collecting signatures last autumn (on the sidewalk), only one person voiced their disagreement.
Why take this action? While we are all simply human beings, the basic meaning of “indigenous people” are those that are the earliest inhabitants of a place, usually over a very long period of time. It is roughly synonymous with the terms aboriginal and autochthonous. Indigenous people have maintained longstanding relationships with nearly all land masses on Mother Earth. Most indigenous groups have been exploited and/or displaced by later arrivals, usually through the ongoing process known as colonization, and they continue to deal with the drastic impacts of that dominant structure. The introduction of that system to the Western Hemisphere was marked by the arrival of Christopher Columbus in 1492. Yes, it was an epochal event and, yes, it is an ongoing reality.
History is not simply a set of facts. It is a story told by an individual, or group of individuals, to give voice to a worldview, of which there are many. People are, if anything, complex, and many stories have been told, often with an intent to assure a shared set of values and assuage fears of others that may be different. We know where those fears have led, and continue to lead, humanity. With a move toward understanding and mutual respect, we can make a little progress toward a better life for all — by this I mean all, human and other-than-human. We can recognize that Columbus was a person whose actions were significant, and lasting, such that they cannot be erased, but he and his legacy are no longer to be celebrated or emulated. Rather, the people who have been most deeply affected by his (symbolic) arrival are worthy of recognition, respect, and restoration for who they are and what they contribute.
Brattleboro, April 26
Brattleboro’s Representative Town Meeting (RTM) held its pre-convening informational evening on March 15, 2017 at Academy School in West Brattleboro, VT. The Official Warning (agenda) was read and discussed, and questions and opinions were aired in preparation for action on Saturday, March 25th at the same venue, beginning at 8:30 a.m. The final item on the Warning, Article 22, asked “Shall the Town of Brattleboro advise the Selectboard to proclaim the second Monday in October as Indigenous Peoples’ Day, in place of Columbus Day?” This author, sponsor of the petitioned article, was present to speak in support of the measure; it appeared to be well-received that evening (testimony viewed at 1:18:15 in the video from Brattleboro Community TV).
Olga Peters, for Windham County’s The Commons weekly, put together an article in review of the Informational Meeting and cited the upcoming action on Article 22:
“The penultimate meeting article will ask members to advise the Selectboard to proclaim the second Monday in October as Indigenous Peoples’ Day. This would replace “Columbus Day” on the town calendar.
Rich Holschuh, who led the petition drive, spoke on the article, noting that changing the holiday to Indigenous Peoples’ Day is a nationwide movement. “Because its time has come,” he said. “Brattleboro can provide a great deal of leadership in the state because this is where colonization in the state began, in 1724 at Fort Dummer.”
According to Holschuh, Marlboro was the first town in Vermont to formally change the second Monday to Indigenous Peoples’ Day. Amherst, Mass., has also made the change.”
And, finally, the Brattleboro Reformer issued a full editorial in support of the measure on Friday, March 24, 2017, the day before the RTM meeting. Full text here. An excerpt below:
Today, March 25, Brattleboro will hold its annual Representative Town Meeting. While the reps will have some meaty issues to weigh and decide on, they will also be discussing whether the town should rename Columbus Day — which falls this year on Oct. 9 as Indigenous Peoples’ Day.
Understanding the kind, compassionate, intelligent and literate people who volunteer to be meeting reps, we believe approval of Article 22, which calls upon the Select Board to do away with Columbus Day, is a given. Last October, the Select Board decided not to put the question on the annual Representative Town Meeting warning without a properly authorized petition.
Now that the matter is officially on the ballot, meeting reps can approve it and the new Select Board, which will be sworn in on March 27, will have the opportunity to do the right thing.
It’s obvious that people on both sides of the Turners Falls “Indians” debate are sincere in the viewpoints, even if the defenders of the status quo may seem more passionate.
Perhaps that’s because we generally resist having things taken away or having change forced on us. In this case, many in the Turners Falls community feel their traditional Indians mascot — which has been tied up with school spirit and identity for generations — is being threatened by political correctness. Of course, those who vocally or subtly advocate parting company with the mascot feel it has racist roots, intentional or not, and needs to be left behind in a more culturally and historically sensitive era.
Following is the full text of a guest editorial that appeared in the Sept. 29, 2016 issue of the Montague Reporter. Melody Brook, the author, is an educator at Champlain College in Burlington, VT and a member of the Elnu Abenaki.
As a citizen of the Elnu Abenaki Tribe, I was asked my opinion about an issue within our traditional territory. This morning, as I tried to formulate my response to a sports team that continues to hold on to a caricature of an indigenous person as their mascot, I stepped back in order to understand the whole picture.
I looked up statistics surrounding missing and murdered indigenous women. I looked up suicide rates. I looked up statistics of heart disease and diabetes. I looked up incarceration rates.
My Facebook feed this morning was full of images of the Dakota Pipeline Water Protectors, and protests in Mi’kmaq territory surrounding natural gas storage sites, both of which are absent on mainstream media sources. There was even a photo of football players in their Redskins uniforms raising their fists in support of Black Lives Matter and wearing a jersey that proves how others, even other marginalized groups, see indigenous people. They don’t.
What does this have to do with a mascot in Turners Falls?
These seemingly unrelated issues are connected to a theme of invisibility and a lack of empathy for indigenous people, one of the most marginalized populations on Turtle Island. I have seen my friends on Facebook argue about Halloween costumes, and the right of the Redskins to maintain their traditions. The issues that plague Indian country are symptoms of a much broader problem that perpetuate them.
A mascot that debases more than 500 Nations into a single – and incorrect – stereotype represents more than 400 years of colonialism, and is the symbol for a world that has never cared about their suffering.
They do not see the faces of the indigenous children shipped to boarding schools. They do not see the smallpox scars. They do not see the societies confined to reservations outside of the public eye, struggling with substance abuse and health issues. They do not see the constant attack to indigenous values, or the bodies of all of those killed creating a country that people are proud to call home.
They see a caricature of an Indian with a headdress, the stereotypical Plains warrior of legend, doomed to fall. The warriors of the past long gone. To them, it may be beautiful or they may even think it is honoring them, but to at least some indigenous people, this is a further affront to countless individuals and groups shredding every last ounce of their souls to reclaim their past, secure a better future, and one filled with pride and the possibility that every other American thinks they have – the pursuit of happiness.
Most importantly, people are struggling just to be seen as human beings.
Change takes place every time someone makes a conscious choice to be better. The Turners Falls mascot is a generic “Indian” with the Plains style headdress in the Northeast. What does that message convey? It has nothing to do with the history of the area.
As a citizen of a local tribe, this mascot does not represent me. It certainly does not honor me. I am hard-pressed to come up with an example in the Northeast of a headdress style similar to the Plains region. It does not fit.
The generic “Indian” mascot in essence wipes the identity of more than 500 Nations, because placing that image in a locale that has nothing to do with the Plains smacks of the message that it does not matter whether they depict local groups or Plains groups. They are all the same.
The regional piece is lost, and all Indians once again are painted in the typical vein of ambiguity, and the fake image of the noble savage or the mystical warrior. When we as a society marginalize and shape human beings into caricatures, we are complicit in the violence against them, metaphorically and literally.
What happens when people are reduced from personhood and they are no longer seen as human beings? What happens when real human beings are left out of the media or ignored by most people in dominant society? Society can continue to treat them as they always have, while symptoms of what was broken remain in their communities.
Mascots could be a visible reminder of people often forgotten – and yet they do not see their real faces. The mask of what they want Indians to be shields them from the realities of indigenous life.
Misrepresentation is a dishonor, but it is also more than that. It is a travesty. And it is no wonder that in this world indigenous women are stolen and attacked at higher rates than other populations. It is no wonder that indigenous people have little to no media coverage just to be able to have clean drinking water or to safeguard their sacred sites from those looking to turn a profit.
Apathy begins when people are young, and is perpetuated by those who do not place value on all walks of life. All Indians are just generic warriors, or a dying race of people without identity. They are not people to mainstream society.
With so many real issues that need to be addressed in indigenous society, we can do better. Change the mascot and teach students how to be responsible citizens in a world desperately in need of them.
In conclusion, as a person with a vested interest in this mascot debate, this mascot does not represent me. It does not honor me. It is an affront to our people.
This is not just a mascot. It is about what the mascot represents. I read an article in Indian Country Today last year chronicling the experience of indigenous students attending high schools with an Indian mascot. They become targets, and it also becomes their role to have to explain what indigenous people really stand for, and what they actually look like. With every new jersey, you send a message to them that their existence is a stereotype and in some cases students have received negative attention.
For a community already struggling with many issues – including, as I can attest personally, self-identity – any school with such a mascot will potentially harm not only the student, but our community as a whole.
It is a school’s job to prepare students for the world, and by doing so, create citizens that will make it a better place. If a mascot can potentially harm any student’s self-identity, why would you continue to keep it? If even one student is sent back with a broken spirit, the community at large failed, because we can all seek to change injustice.
We need role models in our societies, and we need students that feel empowered to take on a world that often does not support them. Turners Falls, I challenge you to do better. Redskins, I challenge you to do better.
Everyone that promotes and that actively perpetuates a broken system, I challenge you to do better.
Melody Walker Brook, a citizen of the Elnu Abenaki Tribe, is an educator, activist, and artisan. Melody has served on several state-level committees, including a term as the vice chair of the Vermont Commission on Native American Affairs as well as a member of the Waolwozi NH Minority Board of Health Steering Committee. She holds a master’s degree in history from the University of Vermont, and currently teaches and works at Champlain College.
Thank you Melody!
The Gill-Montague Regional School Committee is trying hard to give everyone plenty of time and space to consider the Turners Falls High School “Indians” mascot.
A handful of residents have told the committee they think the mascot is offensive to actual American Indians and is especially inappropriate for a school named after a militia captain known for attacking a Native American village near the Great Falls where present day Gill and Montague come together. The group, led by long-time Montague resident David Detmold, asked the committee to change the mascot name.
Perhaps remembering the protracted debate, animosity and lawsuit triggered by the proposal that eventually changed the Frontier “Redskins” to “Red Hawks,” Gill-Montague school officials are handling their request with utmost care.
Predictably, as soon as word spread that the committee had proposed a process for reviewing the mascot, battle lines began forming, with the traditionalists within a week attracting nearly 1,000 signatures to a petition for the status quo. That was followed by a counter-petition favoring a name change, although, so far, the number of signatories to the newer petition is smaller. And the debate had already been engaged on social media, on The Recorder’s website and in letters.