GMUSD board agrees to ‘retire’ Chieftain name 'Indian head' image was dropped two years ago

By Shawn Cunningham
© 2023 Telegraph Publishing LLC

In a move that was a surprise to at least one board member, the Green Mountain Unified School District board voted tonight, Thursday, Jan. 19, to discontinue the use of the Chieftain name. The district had voted to stop using the image of a Native American in a headdress back in October 2021.

Some indicated that this was the last school mascot in Vermont that has been deemed racist and offensive to be removed.

Early in the meeting, student representatives said they understood the topic would come up and urged the board to take action noting that a mascot is meant to bring the school together, but that the Chieftain had become divisive.

The GMUSD board considering retiring the school’s Chieftain mascot

The only mention of the topic on the evening’s agenda was the second-read approval of a school policy regarding “Non-discriminatory Mascots and School Branding,” which passed with little disagreement. That policy reads that the school will “by prohibiting the use of discriminatory school branding, which undermines the educational experiences of members of all communities and perpetuates negative stereotypes.

At that point, board member Josh Schroeder echoed the sentiment that the mascot was dividing the school and moved to “retire” the name Chieftain from use in describing the activities of the high school, including on its sports teams.

“There’s a lot of history there,” said Schroeder. “We grow and we learn and we try to be more inclusive. It was strong at the time but it’s become discriminatory.”

Saying that she appreciated the “retire” wording,” board member Deb Brown said she has has four children who have been Chieftains and that she thought it means something special about leadership.

Board chair Joe Fromberger, a longtime school board representative from Andover, lent an historical perspective saying that Chester High School students were the Sentinels but when the merger that created GM in 1971 took place, it was the student body that chose the Chieftain name.

Lauren Fierman, superintendent for the Two Rivers Supervisory Union, explained that the policy the board had just approved calls on her to “assist the school board in its review of the district’s school branding to ensure compliance with the policy following any school branding changes or updates to the policy.

Todd Parah, in yellow, saying he was proud of the name, but now it was time for them to change

She noted that the policy refers to race, creed or color and that while the intent of the name may have been to refer to leadership,  it has referred to Native Americans.

“Nobody is more affiliated with this name than me and I am Native American, ” said athletic director Todd Parah, his voice cracking at times. “The mascot should unite, but it’s uncomfortable for me now in the world we live in.” Parah said he was proud of the name, but it was time to change.

The only reference to the topic on the agenda was as a routine second read of a school policy and Schroeder’s motion was not expected by Baltimore representative Adrienne Williams who said she wished it had been better warned so she could have gotten input from people in her town. While she voted in favor of the motion Williams said she felt “little bit ambushed.” Fromberger said he would let the motion proceed since it was “pertinent to the business at hand.”

The board voted 7 to 2 to retire the name effective immediately.

“It’s the right thing, but it is sad,” said Parah.

Change was a long-time in the making

The change was a long time in coming. The controversy over use of such images has roiled colleges and professional sports teams across the country – some with blatantly derogatory names and images such as the Washington Redskins football team.

The refurbished gym floor without the logo. The ‘Indian head’ logo can be seen above. File photo.

Years ago, a group of Green Mountain students gave a detailed presentation to the school board explaining why such images and names are problematic and urging the board to be rid of the Chieftain name and its Indian head logo. But some alumni and students urged that it be kept because they believed it was a point of pride, honoring Native Americans such as the local Abenaki, and was not derogatory.

Then, in the spring of 2017, the school’s gym floor was refinished and the Indian head logo in the center of the floor was replaced with a map of Vermont and two smaller silhouettes in corners were removed.

That move surprised school board members who had been told the smaller images would remain. And at its September meeting, about 35 teachers, parents and students showed up to express their support of the Indian head logo. At the time, the board assured them that it was not considering removing the image and name.

By 2021, during Covid, the tide had begun to turn, with more people weighing in the image’s appropriateness. During a public forum in October, Carol McGranaghan, chair of the Vermont Commission on Native American Affairs, who described herself as an “Abenaki person,” told the forum that the word “chieftain” is a “colonizers’ word” that reflected their need to deal with the person in charge of a native group. “It’s not an Abenaki word, not the Abenaki culture.”

Student representatives to the school board also spoke in favor of a change. Greta Bernier said she wanted to feel proud of her community for choosing a mascot that’s inclusive.  “It’s time to change the mascot,” she said.

At its next meeting in October, the board voted to stop using the Indian head image and address the Chieftain name at a later date, which happened tonight.

Cynthia Prairie contributed to this article.

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  1. Randy Miles says:

    It is sad to think that so few can change so much and we the people take the loss. I have looked up the word Chieftains as it states on Google it reads.( Leader of a people or clan.) It does not direct negative attention or point directly to any one or belief but praise,pride,honer and A WAY TO BE IN LIFE. The way this was done is even worse. We ,if I can say we the people who built this school and town did not get much say or input on this issue? I agree there are ones to be changed. Washington football team maybe one of the worst. Pointing in a negative way should of been changed long ago. But Chieftains points to a way to address your way in life. Not at all the same, I was proud, now I am not. So few make changes for so many? I looked up to LEADERS to show us the way? Now I am unsure? Could of should of been discussed in a better way.

  2. Rodger Parker says:

    Mike.& Shawn Untrue Read again. Adjustments can be made

  3. Rodger Parker says:

    Mike. Untrue Read again

  4. Rodger Parker says:

    Shawn The board approved this with very little input. The policy you speak of left room for change and only needed approval if challenged. Another point ignored. This is far from finished.

  5. Raymond Makul says:

    Almost anything these days carries negative overtones. “Hot Rodders” implies reckless driving and burning fossil fuels. “Lumberjacks” implies clear cutting of forests. How about something uniquely Vermont? “Saptappers” comes to mind. Or, who could fin fault with “Taxpayers”? Or “Scholars”?

  6. Joshua Carlisle says:

    As a GMUHS alumni Class of 1991 i find this both disheartening and disappointing that this level of wokeness has crept into my hometown, it is my opinion that it would serve the town ,the surrounding communities, but most of all our children if the school board would find ways to bring back programs like autoshop,woodshop,metal shop,and home economic, these real life skills are deficient in many today ,however i feel more of this same agenda is to come but good luck if it does more people will leave

  7. Sue Willis says:

    So the absurdity of all of this is that “Chieftain” is not even a Native American term. The Native Americans took the word for their own use from the Anglo Saxons.
    Middle English and Old French chevetaine, from late Latin capitaneus (see captain). The spelling was altered by association with chief.

    I have always thought of the Native American Chief as someone who is a leader, one who cares for his community and environment, someone who the village can look up to with pride. One that is honorable, has integrity, is kind, loyal, tolerant, sincere, and peaceful.

    If putting something in our school that stands for all of the above is wrong, so be it. I do not want to offend anyone, but I do not understand how promoting those traits in our youth is negative or racist.

    If there are people in our community that are upset about the way the school is portraying the Chieftain, instead of putting an end to the mascot, maybe an effort to go into the schools and talk to the students about your history and why the Chieftain is important to you would have made this situation an educational experience for the whole community, and would have allowed you to be as proud of our mascot as the former Chieftains of Chester are.

  8. Amy Perry says:

    Why could it not have been shortened to CHIEFS? It certainly seems like there is a complete lack of effort In finding some middle ground that people could be happy with. You’re messing with decades of proud tradition.
    As a proud gm alumni, frankly, I’m so tired of having this conversation every time somebody new moves up here and decides to take offense. We gave up the chieftain logo, fair enough. But when you can’t even use the word chiefs without upsetting somebody, it’s getting ridiculous. “Chiefs” is more than just Native American culture there are chiefs in all cultures, work forces, et cetera. And the fact that they went ahead and voted this out and tried to keep that vote as quiet as possible so people wouldn’t know about it so they couldn’t fight it is absolutely despicable. I am tired Of having our pride and proud traditions at green mountain trampled on.

  9. Ron Patch says:

    How about we do away with Fire Chief and Police Chief? Probably should ban the Jeep Cherokee in the parking lot. I would sleep better. Chester is such a scary town

  10. david w stone says:

    Green mountain “Mountaineers”

  11. Tim Roper says:

    If one’s words attempting to honor another create the opposite feeling in the recipient, what is the correct next step? Telling the honoree that they are wrong and they shouldn’t feel that way? Or, is it better to actually honor them by believing that their reaction is what matters most and make adjustments accordingly?

  12. Justin Turco says:

    I didn’t play sports but I was proud of the chieftain image and name. I see nothing racist about it. I don’t think my Grampa Cloaky on the Turco side would of of minded. He was full Huron. Since he’s gone, I’ll speak for that heritage in the family line on my own behalf. It was fine. In fact I thought it was cool. Im also Italian. If they want to pick up a name that is as honorable to that lineage, something other than Wop, I think we could work with that too. But why. The Chieftain was awesome.

  13. MJ Miles says:

    I suggest no mascot like Rutland. Then we don’t offend anyone. Also do student representatives attend every meeting. Thats great if they do. Why was it not on the agenda?

  14. Laurie O'Connor says:

    We were proud Chieftains and will remain proud Chieftains until everyone who chose the name is gone. As usual, something that honored our native heritage has been erased because a small and very vocal group was offended.

  15. Hi Mike,
    In the third paragraph there is a link to the policy that the board approved. It has the same wording as the statute. Many policies are recommended or mandated by the Agency of Education and this appears to be one based on the law.

  16. Mike Farrell says:

    I’m curious because it’s not mentioned in the article, but do the members of the board know that keeping the name would have actually been against state law S. 139, which was signed by the Governor on May 12? The law prohibits “school branding that references or stereotypes the likeness or symbols of a race, creed, color, national origin, sexual orientation or gender identity.

  17. Martha Mott says:

    I suggest that the replacement name be Green Mountains Lions as in “mountain lions”