Gill-Montague Superintendent’s Thoughts Regarding the Turners Falls Mascot

Remarks made by Superintendent Michael Sullivan on Feb. 14, 2017, when the GMRSD School Committee voted 6-3 to change the Indians mascot/logo, after a contentious but thorough examination of the issue. Full quote below:

Before I share my thoughts about the logo/nickname situation I would like to thank the school committee for having the courage to address this issue, knowing in advance that it would be controversial. The integrity and earnestness with which you have undertaken this process is admirable and I am proud to serve you. It also needs to be said that given your knowledge of the district’s communities combined with the scores of hours you have put into listening to citizens and scholars and studying this matter, no one is better equipped and poised to make decisions about it than you are.

In terms of sharing my perspective on the “TFHS Indians”, I would start by saying there is no doubt that the “Indian” is a symbol of tradition and pride to many, if not most, of the adult members of the district’s communities and we now know that most of our students feel similarly. We also know that those who support the “Indian” have no ill intent towards Native Americans. But, because they bear no ill will, many supporters of the nickname and logo, particularly students, continue to ask “where is the harm in it?”

As the district’s educational leader I believe we need to help our students understand that there is harm in the status quo. On average, each year, three of our students are Native American and these students deserve and are afforded the same civil rights protections enjoyed by all students. According to our policies, these rights include learning in an environment free from conduct, symbols, and language that create a hostile, humiliating, intimidating, or offensive educational environment.

Over the last several months we have heard from over 50 area Native Americans, both at forums and in writing, who find the “Indian” to be offensive, humiliating, and harmful. These sentiments have been the clear consensus view of the Native American community in our region. We have also learned that organizations with expertise in the social sciences have condemned the use of Indian mascots as harmful and/or in violation of students’ civil rights. These include the American Psychological Association, the American Anthropological Association, the American Sociological Association, as well as the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the National Congress of American Indians, and the National Collegiate Athletic Association.

Our review process has shown that there is widespread interest in having students learn more about local history and Native American cultures. This is commendable and will be acted upon. But this will not be enough. Our review process has also revealed that Native American mascots have helped legitimize and perpetuate harmful racial stereotypes and that these symbols exist within a context of historical oppression against indigenous people, including an act of tragic violence that occurred right in this community, only to be followed by centuries of ongoing assault, subjugation, and dispossession. Understood in this context it is logical to see the injustice of appropriating a name and culture that is not ours to take and shape as we please. Indians are not like cowboys or Vikings. They are cultures of real people, our neighbors, and it is inappropriate to treat them or any racial, ethnic, religious, or gender group in ways that perpetuate and legitimize stereotypes.

Part of the mission of all public schools is to teach students to think critically and to equip them to live in a multi-ethnic and complex world, which includes learning to recognize and dispel prejudices and stereotypes. Our review process has made clear we have much work to do to advance all facets of students’ multicultural learning; from thinking critically about history, to learning to see events from multiple perspectives, to understanding the nature of prejudice, discrimination, and oppression.

Many of our students have difficulty understanding this perspective and instead fall back on their honestly held belief that where no offense is intended, no problem exists. We have an obligation, as a public school system, to help our students grow beyond this line of reasoning, an aspiration clearly advanced by the district’s core values of empathy and continuous learning and it core belief that public education is the primary means we have for cultivating democracy and achieving social justice.

In my opinion there is no way to retain the name “Indians” that would not continue to present a civil rights problem, a pedagogical mixed message, and a misalignment with our mission and core values. That we did not understand these things in the past need not be anyone’s fault, but if we do not act upon what we understand now it will be a lost opportunity to be our best selves.

Gill-Montague Board Votes 6-3 to Remove Turners Falls Indian Mascot

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The Gill-Montague Regional School Committee has voted to change the Turners Falls High School mascot from the “Indians” in a 6-3 vote on Tuesday night.

About 70 were in the crowd of the auditorium as the five-month debate came to an unanticipated close when the School Committee voted to change after an hour of discussion on the issue.

The School Committee was partially through a process to review the mascot that they discontinued last meeting. Those who advocated for the vote said it was because the process had become overwhelmingly divisive in the towns and schools.

Read the full report by Miranda Davis in the Greenfield Recorder!

Video coverage of the School Committee meeting from Montague Community Television:

More coverage (some duplicate wire services):

http://www.westernmassnews.com/story/34506389/turners-falls-vote-to-change-high-schools-indian-mascot

School committee voted to remove Turners Falls High School ‘Indians’ mascot

http://www.dailyprogress.com/massachusetts-school-board-dumps-native-american-mascot/article_675ca1ec-b904-5666-acf9-da02b690c20e.html

http://www.masslive.com/news/index.ssf/2017/02/turners_falls_high_school_to_s.html

http://www.bostonherald.com/news/local_coverage/2017/02/massachusetts_school_board_dumps_native_american_mascot

https://www.boston.com/news/local-news/2017/02/15/massachusetts-school-board-dumps-native-american-mascot

 

Local Indigenous Speakers Call for Education in Third Turners Falls Forum

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Two local Native American speakers called for more education during their presentation at the third community event in the ongoing review of the Turners Falls High School’s mascot, currently the “Indians.” Chief Cheryll Toney Holley of the Hassanamesit Nipmuc Nation and Dr. Lisa Brooks, Amherst College professor and Abenaki, touched on a wide range of concerns, including the impact of Native imagery in mascots on Native American students. The school board is currently debating whether to keep the mascot.

Both speakers come from local Native American tribes and touched on the main arguments in the current Turners Falls debate, including the research and studies that show Native American mascots can have a negative impact on Native students.

“A lot of people are saying that you have this mascot to honor us,” Toney Holley said. “It does not honor us in any way.”

Full report  by Miranda Davis in the Greenfield Recorder.

Native American Viewpoint is Topic of Third Turners Falls Mascot Forum

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For those following of the ongoing discussion about the Turners Falls High School mascot, there will be a third educational forum on Monday that will cover the local Native American perspective. Chief Cheryll Toney Holley of the Hassanamesit Nipmuc Nation and Dr. Lisa Brooks, Amherst College professor and an Abenaki, are the scheduled presenters.

The two will be discussing the local Native American perspective in relation to the school’s ongoing debate whether to keep the mascot, which is currently the “Indians.” Two previous presentations included a historical perspective and a social justice, multicultural one.

The event will be held in the Turners Falls High School Auditorium at 6:30 p.m. on Monday, and the presentations will be followed by a question-and-answer session. The fourth and final event is set for Jan. 5 and will be about the Turners Falls High School alumni perspective. Speakers have yet to be announced by the district.

Link to original story in Greenfield Recorder.

Teaching Moment for Turners Falls Community

An editorial in the 12.08.2016 Greenfield Recorder, following the Thanksgiving game incidents. Full op-ed here.

As the Gill-Montague Regional School Committee continues to work toward a decision on whether to continue using Indians as its team nickname, a teaching moment has emerged from the recent Thanksgiving Day football game.

Since the fall, the School Committee has been taking steps to guide its decision— from airing public sentiment at hearings to gathering relevant historical and cultural information from local experts.

While this process is an important one, it has also provided a public stage for conflict between those who see the Indians nickname evoking respect and school pride and others who say it is hurtful and insensitive to Native Americans. Into this heated but generally civil debate, a headdress and the “Tomahawk Chop” made an appearance during the game between Turners Falls and longtime rival, Greenfield.

Valdiviezo Addresses Social Justice at Second TF Educational Forum

laura valdiviezo turners falls forum

Laura Valdiviezo, an associate professor from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst College of Education, answered questions and spoke to the possible processes the school district might enact when deciding whether to keep or change the Turners Falls High School mascot, currently the Indians.

She spoke about the multicultural and social justice perspectives as it pertains to the current mascot debate. Valdiviezo presented several studies that showed negative effects of Native American mascots and logos on Native American students and discussed national organizations that have called for the end of use of Native American imagery with sports teams.

Valdiviezo said that either way, change should happen. Either the mascot itself will change or the school should take steps to incorporate local Native Americans into decisions about the mascot and how the school represents the “Indians.” She recommended collaboration and conversations with local Native Americans.

Read the full story by Miranda Davis in the Greenfield Recorder.

Recorder Op-Ed: Melody Walker Brook

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“The Indians mascot debases 500 Nations by treating us as all the same”

The Greenfield Recorder has just featured a column in their My Turn section, with Melody Walker Brook’s (Elnu Abenaki) perspective on the Turners Falls mascot/logo debate. A slightly different version of her thoughts appeared in the Montague Reporter recently and can be found in this post. I have reprinted the column in its entirety below; the Recorder’s original can be found here.

Quote:

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.

What does this have to do with a mascot in Turners Falls?

Everything.

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. 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.

The people advocating for the mascot do not see the faces of the indigenous children shipped to boarding schools.

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.

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 and secure a better future, 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.

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 out 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 you do not see their real faces. The mask of what you want Indians to be shields you from the realities of indigenous life.

Misrepresentation is a dishonor. It is 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 of efforts 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. To mainstream society, they are not people.

We can do better. Change the mascot and teach students how to be responsible citizens in a world desperately in need of them.

*****

Melody Walker Brook is a citizen of the Elnu Abenaki Tribe and is an educator, activist and artisan. She has served on several state level committees, including two terms as the vice chair of the Vermont Commission on Native American Affairs and as a member of the Waolwozi N.H. Minority Board of Health Steering Committee. She earned a master’s degree from the University of Vermont in history and currently teaches and works at Champlain College.