Nearly two dozen Massachusetts schools currently use Native American–themed mascots, nicknames and logos, According to the New England Anti-Mascot Coalition. Now, lawmakers have proposed companion House and Senate bills that would bar Massachusetts public schools from using such symbolism that references Native Americans.
At a State House hearing Monday, supporters argued that the symbols cause demonstrable harm, that they’re dehumanizing and racist, and that the activism on a case-by-case basis has exhausted local advocates who face fierce pushback.
State Rep. Brandy Fluker Oakley, who filed the House version of the bill, cited research into the psychological impacts that such symbols can have on Indigenous children.
"Native American mascots reinforce negative stereotypes and generate a hostile climate for students," Fluker Oakley said. "Researchers have found that Native American mascots resulted in lower self esteem, lower perceptions of ... community worth and lower achievement."
Rhonda Anderson, the Western Mass. Commissioner on Indian Affairs, said that while some schools have jettisoned Native American mascots in recent years, others have refused to do so.
When she and other people of Indigenous ancestry have urged the holdouts to change course, Anderson added, the response has been vitriolic.
"The remaining schools with Native mascots are stubbornly attached to controlling our Native identities, which they are using against our wishes," Anderson said. "Native Americans including myself have faced racial slurs, threats of violence and harassment from communities when we challenge the use of these mascots."
State Sen. Jason Lewis echoed that point, saying that while his daughter was part of a successful push to retire Winchester High School's old "Sachems" mascot, that activism took a toll on students and others in town.
"When they stand up, they do often face bullying," Lewis said. "The same is true for staff members who try to do the right thing, or school committee members, or parents."
The legislation would also ban logos, mascots and team names that “denigrate ... any racial, ethnic, gender, or religious group.”
If the proposal becomes law, the state’s Board of Elementary and Secondary Education would set a deadline by which any schools currently using such symbolism would need to adopt new names and iconography. Those schools would be allowed to temporarily continue using old uniforms and signs.
Lewis also said that banning Native American mascots at public schools would dovetail with the ongoing push to reimagine Massachusetts' state seal, which contains symbolism that many find offensive.
"If we can do that work at the state level on our state symbols, like our seal and our flag, then I certainly believe we can be doing the same thing [with] local communities," he said.
The push to eliminate the use of Native American mascots and nicknames at all levels of sport has been underway for decades at all levels of sport. Supporters consistently make the same central argument that using Native Americans and Native American identity as a branding mechanism is fundamentally racist and dehumanizing.
At a virtual teach-in conducted by the Massachusetts Indigenous Legislative Agenda last year, Shawna Newcomb — a schoolteacher, activist and member of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe — elaborated on that theme.
“A mascot is an object,” Newcomb said. “We are not, as Native people, just objects. We have a whole culture. We have stories; we have traditions. We are just as special as any other race or culture that exists.
“We don’t want to be made a fictitious character,” Newcomb added. “We’re more than that.
The pending legislation would not apply to Native American tribes, which would be free to use such symbolism for tribal schools. It would also allow a public school to use a particular tribe’s name if that tribe provided explicit consent for that use.