To the editor: Native Americans not honored by mascot

I grew up in Upstate New York in the 1970s. I went to Girl Scout camp and stayed in cabins with names such as Iroquois, Oneida and Hiawatha. At Thanksgiving, we cut out little paper feathers and attached them to a brown strip of construction paper so that we could play Indians in the school play.

We gave each other Indian burns, sang “10 Little Indians” and we slapped our mouths and danced in circles whooping when we played “Indian.” Don’t get me wrong, I thought Indians were interesting and something to revere, and I certainly didn’t want to disrespect them. Yet, I didn’t actually know anything about them, or that these things were wrong.

At the same time that I was sitting Indian-style around the rug at school, landmarks like Alcatraz and Mt. Rushmore was being occupied by Native American activists, but I never heard about it. When I was crafting my beaded pouch in the Mohawk cabin, I didn’t know that Native American children in the 1970s were still being taken away from their families and forced into abusive boarding schools against their parents’ will across our country.

I didn’t know about the eugenics. All I learned was that Columbus was friends with the Indians, Indians made great mascots, and they cried when you littered.

This is how things were in the 1970s soon after the Civil Rights Movement. This was also the same time when Green Mountain High School in Chester adopted the Chieftain as its mascot. In the 1970s this was considered progress, and it was part of the norm.

Now 40 years later, we know that during that same decade in Vermont hundreds of Abenaki people were still being sterilized against their will. Our own Native American population in this state felt they had to hide their identity to keep their families safe. Ironically, this was the same time white schools like Green Mountain adopted this same identity to show how tough and brave their sports teams were.

It’s OK – it was the way things were. It was progress back then. We thought we were honoring the idea of Native Americans, although we didn’t know anything about their real story.

Things are different today. We know the stories – and if you don’t, I encourage you to do your own research.

Education will help you understand why some “traditions” need to change. “Traditions” like Aunt Jemima and the Land O Lakes Indian Maid are being replaced. At long last, the Confederate flag is coming down. The time for change is now. I was lucky enough to spend a portion of my adult life teaching high school on the Navajo reservation. When I see your mascot, I think of my students, their struggles and their stories and how this image does not represent them in any way.

Here are things I ask you to consider as you consider replacing the current mascot.

  • This image was created by a white student, not anyone of Abenaki or other Native American descent. There are many wonderful Native American artists in the area who could be consulted on the use of these symbols and images, or who could be hired to create one.
  • This image does not represent a particular chief? Who is it supposed to be? Can you imagine
    if we used a random drawing of the face of an African American man as a mascot? Wouldn’t
    that seem strange?

The school would not have to change the name Chieftains necessarily – there are plenty of
anglo chieftain images that could be adopted – look into Irish or Viking images that would be
more representative of our population. There are many student artists at Green Mountain who
could create something more culturally appropriate. Also, please reconsider the use of “Lady
Chiefs” which is wrong for other reasons (think gender identity).

Do the students of Green Mountain know anything about the history of our Indigneous people in
the United States? As far as I know, Green Mountain does not have a Native American studies program,
and they do not donate money to any organizations that support Indigneous populations in our
area. Have they read the book Hidden Roots​ by Joseph Bruchac? It would be a great thing to
consider for the future. How many of our students can name more than three of the 572 recognized
Native American tribes in America? How is this mascot an appropriate symbol of this student
community that has no connection or understanding of Indigenous people?

I have heard from many of the students from your school who play sports and who are embarrassed by this mascot and who want to see it changed. Expecting students from a primarily white school to walk around with tomahawks on their sweatshirts in 2020 is just wrong. Native mascots also lead to students saying “scalp em” and other racist things during sporting events, and this does occur at Chester games. I happen to know this first hand because I brought my Navajo friends to a game at Chester, and they were offended by what they saw. It was embarrassing. I understand that you want to believe it isn’t offensive, but it just is.

As an educator, I hope you will consider that this could be such a wonderful learning experience for the students of our community. It is a lesson in civics, and in how a community can grow and make a positive change. As a school, it would be an important symbolic gesture of growth that shows a commitment to evolve with the rest of the country. Nothing that can be considered racially insensitive should be part of our public school or community. Maine recently banned Native mascots in public schools, and I believe Vermont should do the same. I personally would never send my kids to Green Mountain High School because of this mascot and what it represents.

Did you know that our current Poet Laureate of the United States, Joy Harjo, is Native American? We also recently elected our first Native American congresswoman. Show our Indigenous people the respect they deserve. They are people, not relics from history, or mythical creatures to emulate. Please make this important change that shows Green Mountain is willing to grow and respond to the call for change and for eliminating language and symbols that help to uphold racially insensitive stereotypes. I don’t understand why this is a debate at all.

The community of Chester and its students deserve a mascot that they can be proud of. It’s time to let go of old traditions that are not representative of this new and more enlightened youth and a community that should be welcoming for all people.

Thank you

D. Velto

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  1. Sarah yake says:

    “Native American Guardians Association” a great site with much about this subject. “Educate not Eradicate” Keeping the imagery of native american cultural alive.

  2. Sarah yake says:

    The “Native American Guidance Association” offers a lot of insight on the personal view of 91% of all native americans regarding this subject. Keeping the imagery “Educate not Eradicate”.

  3. Sharon Jonynas says:

    Thank you for writing this letter and for bringing to light all of these issues. I really hope things will change.

  4. E. Tornquist says:

    Thank you Deborah,

    I so appreciated reading your comments on the poll yesterday and now this letter today. I graduated from GM in 2014 and am now an English teacher. I feel robbed by my education and certainly take no pride in the way our community handled our complex past with white supremacy. I did not, until very recently, learn of Vermont’s egregious history with eugenics and thank you for bringing this to light. It is refreshing to hear someone speak factually and empathetically on the history that we all need to grapple with. You raise many wonderful questions that I hope local educators and community members take to heart. Here’s hoping the conversation continues with the wonderful information presented here.

    In solidarity,
    Emily Tornquist

  5. Meg Minehan says:

    Well said! Thanks for writing such a powerful and eloquent letter.