In the aftermath of Dylann Roof’s horrendous domestic terrorism in Charleston, South Carolina, at a historically Black church, I was compelled to reflect upon the Confederate Battle Flag that once flew over those who continue to be racially oppressed whenever they walked by the South Carolina Confederate Monument. I arrived at multiple conclusions. The first was that officials should remove the Confederate Battle Flag from statehouse grounds across the country. The second concerned my alma mater, Amesbury High School.
On July 6, 2015, I authored a letter to the editor of the Newburyport Daily News, the community newspaper of Essex county, Massachusetts. “Time for Amesbury to get rid of Indian Mascot” called upon the administration and teachers at Amesbury High School to recognize that it also utilizes a symbol of discrimination and racism, the “Amesbury Indian,” as the schools’ mascot. However, drawing attention to Amesbury’s racist mascot was only the first step of many that has failed to result in the retirement of stereotypical imagery.
The Amesbury Indian may seem benign to those not familiar with dysconscious racism, cultural violence, genocide, and forced cultural assimilation. Nevertheless, the fact remains the Amesbury Public School system continues to pride itself upon a symbol that propagates, and perpetuates a stereotype that is utterly inconsistent with the past or current experiences of Native Americans.
Writing to the previous Superintendent of Schools, Dr. Robinson, I strengthened this argument by pointing out that, “AHS is one of a breath-taking forty-three high schools in the state of Massachusetts which still uses mascots such as ‘Indians,’ ‘Redskins’ and ‘Tomahawks.’” I also pointed out that,“…such racial stereotypes simply have no place in an educational environment, regardless of the types of ‘traditions’ communities have come to associate with these mascots and logos.” Anticipating potential objections, I pointed out that outside of the organization I was working with, the New England Anti-Mascot Coalition,
“Additional organizations have also, for more than forty years, been calling for an end to the use of Native American Culture as sports entertainment and include NEA, the NAACP, the National Congress of American Indians, and the Intertribal Council of the Five Civilized Tribes, among a plethora of additionally notable organizations. In turn, I encourage you to research the scholarly work done on this issue to learn about the work Native American people and their advocates have been doing for decades.”
Psychological, sociological, and educational studies reinforce this viewpoint. For example, the Basic and Applied Social Psychology published “Of Warrior Chiefs and Indian Princesses: The Psychological Consequences of American Indian Mascots.” The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights took notice of the implications, in 2001, publishing a “Statement of U.S. Commission on Civil Rights on the use of Native American Imagines and Nicknames as Sports Symbols.” It argues “The elimination of stereotypes will make room for education about real Indian people, current Native American issues, and the rich variety of American Indian cultures in our country.” This statement is not isolated. The Massachusetts Commission on Indian Affairs, the NAACP, the Intertribal Council of the Five Civilized Tribes have endorsed the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights statement, while the Society of Indian Psychologists and the American Psychological Association ratified their own statements condemning the continued use of such mascots by non-Native American Schools.
Following the letter to Dr. Robinson and a public comment I presented to the Amesbury School Committee, the controversy surrounding the Amesbury Indian seemed to have lost its momentum. Yet this past January, the newly appointed Interim Superintendent of Schools, Dr. Gary S. Reese, reignited the public debate by addressing the matter in his entry plan as a direct response to my concerns. To the surprise of Amesbury residents, Dr. Reese engaged current students of AHS and members of the community in evaluating public opinion on the matter, as a means of improving the professionalism of the publicly funded institution. After the entry plan was released to the public, the Newburyport Daily News published Jim Sullivan’s article entitled “In Amesbury, Indian Mascot gets Second look” which cited my main objection.
My main concern lies in our desensitization towards that culture which is a culture that we kind of came in and did what philosophers and psychologists call cultural genocide. … It does characterize a very vibrant culture with one notion, just like in the 1950s and ‘60s there were mascots called Little Black Sambo. But during the Civil Rights movement, that was quickly dismantled because of how it discriminated and characterized African-Americans in our country.
I’m all for First Amendment rights and freedom of speech. … It’s not about political correctness. This has been contested by lawyers and law groups and advocacy groups as violating anti-discrimination law, therefore it is only reasonable that our community follow federal procedure and at least discuss it and debate about it. … There are plenty of nonprofit groups and advocacy groups that would be willing to help. Adidas is offering to give financial help to high schools to transition away from a Native American Indian mascot and into newly-designed uniforms and things in the school. That is a major concern. How do we handle the cost? But things need to be upgraded over time. Jerseys are changed out. So, that can be phased in and it doesn’t need to be an overnight transition.
In preparation for mascot defender’s resistance to my concerns and proposals as well as to the growing coalition of receptive students, I sent two additional letters to the Newburyport Daily News, entitled respectively “Amesbury High School needs to find a new Mascot” and “In Amesbury, ‘Indian’ Mascot has its Defenders.” In the second, I provided additional counterarguments to defender’s objections raised during debates in which I participated. The most common challenge claimed that the mascot “honored” Native Americans by praising their “warrior-like” spirit and history. In response, I pointed out that this view is inconsistent with the scholarly research and the position of the National Congress of American Indians; that is, the most well-established and representative advocacy collective of Native people.
Concluding the second letter, I argued that a rejection of the argument for the discontinuation of the mascot, is also a renunciation of scholarly and scientific standards. “The same scientific method and peer-review process that I have employed when co-authoring academic articles in chemistry is utilized by the social scientists that draw the reproducible conclusion that the racial stereotype perpetuated by the use of Native American mascots has no place in an educational environment.”
In a final letter to the Newburyport Daily News, that went unpublished, I cited a passage from a statement of support to the Amesbury Public School system from the president of the Society of Indian Psychologists, Dr. Blume, Professor of Psychology at Washington State University. “The Society of Indian Psychologists would like to strongly encourage you to follow the lead of many courageous institutions who have opted to retire their mascots for the health and well-being of all people.”
The controversy raged until December of 2016, when Reese decided to keep the mascot. The Newburyport Daily News reported the ruling in another piece by Sullivan entitled “Votes are in, Amesbury Indian symbol stays.” Long before Reese’s decision, I solidified my case in a letter to another paper, the Amesbury Wicked Local.
“I would also like to put forth an objection to the notion that the call for the Amesbury High School administration to retire its current mascot is somehow a form of ‘political correctness.’ My efforts have not been focused upon a private institution who has chosen to make use of a racist and discriminatory logo. Rather, I am calling upon a publicly financed place of learning to take note of the psychological and scientific literature, which suggests that we ought to retire the mascot due to its measurably detrimental consequences previously mentioned. In fact, like most of the members of the community that have rejected my plea, I too agree that ‘political correctness’ has gotten out of hand and that we need to spend as much time as possible on poverty, the heroin crisis and much more. However, I do not think that these issues are mutually exclusive. For example, I wouldn’t expect the administration of Amesbury High School to spend its time trying to solve the heroin crisis, outside of mandating a health class. Indeed, the majority of my time that has been allocated to co-curricular activities since graduating from AHS in 2012, has been focused on trying to solve the clean water crisis in Honduras, Haiti and Colombia…. Moreover, I am not serving as a liaison between the Native population and the Amesbury High School administration because the mascot is simply offensive, but because so many social scientists have used the scientific method to conclude that the use of Native American mascots have [sic] no place in an educational environment, regardless of the mascot’s historical significance to the community.”
For those who feel the same way regarding their own community’s mascots, remember that by drawing attention to the matter, you are honorably standing in solidarity with an underrepresented and forgotten population who deserves to have their voices heard. However, with the Dakota Access Pipeline remaining as a threat, I hope that activists will engage in matters of pressing concern within the communities of Native populations.