Winchester High School's mascot when Jamie Morrison went there was the Sachems and still was until last year. The associate director of the Urban Scholars Program at UMass Boston, who is Eastern Cherokee, has been trying to get rid of Native American mascots for a long time.
“I witnessed a lot of things at Winchester," he said. "A lot of close friends who were white that grew up and they would dress up. Or their siblings would dress up” as Indians.
Morrison recalled pep rallies where a person dressed as a female Native character would be in a cage and someone would have to save her.
“As a 16-, 17-year-old kid, even as someone who is mixed Native and Irish, it had a profound effect, something I can still remember vividly today," he said. "I can remember sitting in that pep rally and just being, like, ‘Jesus.’ You know, like just feeling really isolated and small.”
That’s not just an anecdote. Studies have shown that just exposing Native students to images of Native American mascots can result in lower self-esteem and other psychological harm.
Joseph Gone, faculty director of Harvard University's Native American Program, lists a number of negative effects such mascots can have.
“A kind of truncated sense of possibility for your future in terms of the achievement that you might be able to accomplish," he said. "Lower sense of the worth of your community. Bad feelings.”
Gone, who is Aaniih-Gros Ventre, a Montana tribe, said the damaging impact of the mascots and images doesn’t stop with Native American youth.
“They also impact non-Native people, who, in some studies, have been shown when exposed to Native mascots to actually trigger broader stereotypical thinking against Native people," he said. "So basically, these stereotypes kind of beget stereotypes in non-Native people.”
After years of advocacy from Morrison and others, two bills currently in the state legislature have a chance to formally end the use of Native American mascots in Massachusetts public schools.
The legislation comes as many schools have already dropped their mascots. A feeling of inevitability of increased state oversight has spread as more scrutiny is turned on issues of civil rights across the country following the Black Lives Matter protests of last year.
Currently, about two dozen schools in the commonwealth still have Native American mascots.
For Rhonda Anderson, the western Massachusetts Commissioner on Indian Affairs, it’s a huge improvement over the way things used to be.
“When I started this in 2017… we were like in the 40s," she said. "So this is massive.”
Anderson said that in the past year well over a dozen schools have dropped their mascots. Each of them, she said, wanted to make the change on their own rather than under a state mandate that forced their hand.
But changes, or even the proposed ones, have sometimes been met with swift backlash from town residents.
In April, Wakefield voters favored keeping their old Warriors logo in a non-binding referendum even though the school committee had previously voted to eliminate it.
State Senator Joanne Comerford from Northampton filed the Senate version of the bill proposing the ban of Native American mascots. She told GBH News the issue is better managed at the state level like other civil rights issues.
“We don’t leave other issues of that kind of major (importance) to communities to decide themselves," she said. "It is the state’s job to safeguard civil rights, racial justice, Indigenous rights for the constituents of the Commonwealth.”
Anderson, the Indian Affairs commissioner, who descends from the Iñupiaq–Athabascan of Alaska, said one reason people struggle with leaving old mascots and imagery behind is the difference between intention, often characterized as an attempt to honor Native Americans, versus harm.
“So their intention, albeit uneducated, their intention is good, OK?" she said. "But they need to understand the harm. Educating on the harm is the important piece of the equation.”
In April, the Northborough-Southborough Regional School Committee opted to drop Algonquin Regional High School's Tomahawk mascot. But Saugus High School still uses Sachems. Ware Junior Senior High School is the Indians. Agawam High School has as its logo a stereotyped Native American with a headdress of feathers. They go by the name of the Brownies.
ToJamie Morrison, who is assistant coach of the men's basketball team at UMass Boston, the fact that it’s taken so long for the state to really consider taking serious action on Native American mascots and imagery has him feeling less than optimistic.
But he’s seen the rising number of schools that have dropped their logos and mascots in the past year and a half, momentum he believes stems from the fallout from the murder of George Floyd.
Still, even if the legislation becomes law and Native American mascots and imagery are banned in Massachusetts, other issues still face the state’s Indigenous community. Morrison points to underrepresentation in schools and local communities.
“But so we just don’t really have that," he said. "And I think that’s a big difference here in New England where our populations are so small and so underrepresented in comparison to those some of those other states that are underrepresented, but do have some representation locally and at the state that can make a difference in policy.”
Even after all these years, that limited representation, not necessarily in policy but just in everyday life, is apparent to Morrison’s son, Quannah, who is 17 and plays basketball at Milton High School and club hockey.
He doesn’t interact with Native American mascots as much as his dad did growing up, but he’ll still run into schools that have those images. But a more pressing issue is just not having many people around who are like him. He thinks he and his younger brother are maybe the only two Native American kids in their hometown of Milton.
“It’s a little, I don’t want to say sad in a sense, but to think that at one point we were the only people here and now we’re like the minimum of minimums, it’s obviously just a big discrepancy and really interesting to think about," he said.
That may get to the core of the problem that scholars like Joseph Gone see these mascots and logos posing: When there are so few Native Americans to speak on their experiences, the caricatures and cartoons schools put on football helmets can become the most many people interact with Native culture. Or at least what they think Native culture is.