The history of appropriating and disrespecting Indigenous peoples in American runs deep, as shown through the former BHS mascot, the Massachusetts state seal and the unfulfilled promises of the Treaty of New Echota. Many institutions have committed to changing their symbols and practices for a better future.

Changing mascots, seals and systems: initiatives to reconcile with history

January 11, 2023

Efforts to reconcile with America’s bloody history of violence, oppression and appropriation towards Indigenous peoples are becoming more widespread. Here are three initiatives to change appropriated names, symbols and systems at local, state and national levels.

BHS mascot

The high school has not always had the “Warrior” as their mascot and even such, several iterations of the “Warrior” have been used.

Until as late as 1984, sports teams used the “Sagamore Indian” as their mascot, which was often abbreviated as the “Indians.” It is unclear when the high school took on the mascot of “Sagamore Indians,” but the first use of Indigenous imagery in the BHS yearbook was in 1928. Most likely, the mascot came long after the existence of the newspaper “The Sagamore,” initially named in 1893.

As seen in this clipping from a 1970 edition of The Sagamore, students wore face pain and traditional Native American headdresses as a costume in support of the mascot at the time, the “Sagamore Indians.” (ANYA RAO/SAGAMORE STAFF)

The “Indians” was not the only way teams were identified, as they were often referred to as the “Wealthy Towners” in articles from this newspaper and other local newspapers.

According to a 2007 edition of this newspaper, the school dropped the mascot of the “Indian” in 1971, when two Indigenous students protested the practice of the cheerleading team dressing up as Native Americans during the Thanksgiving day pep rally.

The first time this newspaper referred to sports teams as the “Warriors” was in 1986. According to former Head of School Bob Weintraub, the “Warrior” can be thought of in a generic sense, given the many different types of warriors, including the terra-cotta warriors displayed in the atrium.

In this 1986 copy of The Sagamore, sports teams were officially referred to as the “Warriors.”(ANYA RAO/SAGAMORE STAFF)

The school used stereotypical Native American imagery, such as headdress, in yearbook designs and for costumes, though based on archived yearbooks and newspapers, jerseys did not depict any symbols. Later, the high school turned to a Native American arrowhead– depicted as a spear with feathers.

This 1928 copy of the BHS yearbook, now known as the Murivian, marks the first time the book depicted a Native American person on its cover. This continued for six years, until 1934.(ANYA RAO/SAGAMORE STAFF)

In 2007, the girls varsity volleyball players wore Native American headdresses before their state semifinal game, which ignited widespread conversations about the impact of having Native American imagery serve as the school’s mascot.

Specifically, members of the Tribal Community Alliance, a club composed of Native American students, condemned the offensive nature of this act.

Native American student Alicia Mucha ‘08 was the first to approach Weintraub with concerns about the racial implications of the costume worn by the volleyball team. Mucha and others who took a stand were met with fierce opposition from other students.

The evening of the incident, girls from the volleyball team created a Facebook group entitled “we ARE the warriors, we will ALWAYS be the warriors,” and 400 others joined in support of the mascot.

In a 2006 edition of this newspaper, Mucha said students verbally attacked her, calling her an “ugly Sasquatch b*tch” and a “Native American c*nt.”

Mucha said the volleyball event and reaction made her feel unsafe walking the halls of the high school.

“I don’t feel comfortable in my own school because I don’t know what I am going to see every time I walk in,” Mucha said in the 2006 article. “We’re still here, and we’re not a joke and we’re not a costume.”

This 2006 edition of The Sagamore discussed the discomfort of many Indigenous students with the arrowhead imagery being used at the time. (ANYA RAO/SAGAMORE STAFF)

The mascot was officially removed soon after and the high school proceeded without a mascot until 2014.

According to current Athletic Director Kyle Williams, who was named Assistant Athletic Director in 2014, without an official logo, many people were continuing to use the previous offensive symbol.

“That absence of a logo meant that some students were still holding on to the iconography that was problematic. There was an absence of a unifying symbol,” Williams said. “It meant that some teams went and did their own logo for their own sport, and we have 90 teams and like 40 programs, so you could have imagined that we had a lot of different things and images representing Brookline High School.”

The culmination of two years of work by the Athletic Department, Brookline Superfans, Student Council and Legislature resulted in the selection of the Spartan Warrior as the new mascot, which was formally unveiled to the community at a pep rally in 2014. The other finalist for a mascot was a Revolutionary Warrior, but a vote conducted during all advisories selected the Spartan.

According to Williams, students have made the most of the term “Warrior.”

“Groups have used it really productively, like Warriors for Change and Social Justice Warriors and SHARP Warriors,” Williams said. “It’s certainly something where people can take it and use it in a healthy productive way.”

There are still signs of the high school’s history of Native American appropriation, such as the banners depicting the arrowhead hanging in the Schluntz gym.

Williams said the district has made progress removing old emblems, such as the arrowhead logo formerly painted on the floor of the Tappan Gym, but work still remains.

“The banners themselves are certainly something that needs to be addressed and it’s long overdue. I think some of the delay probably revolves around trying to do the project all at once. But there hasn’t been much conversation,” Williams said. “We have an interest in pretty much taking out all of the banners and restarting that process so that it really represents and celebrates our student body, past and present.”

Massachusetts state seal

In May 2022, the Special Commission Relative to the State Seal and Motto of the Commonwealth, tasked with reevaluating the Massachusetts state seal, voted unanimously in favor of changing it. This means that for the first time since 1898, the state will have a brand new symbol.

The current seal depicts a Native American standing under an arm wielding a sword, along with the Latin phrase: “By the sword we seek peace, but peace only under liberty.”

The Massachusetts flag depicts the current state seal, which will also be changed upon the creation of the new seal.(PUBLIC DOMAIN)

According to Executive Director of Mass Humanities and co-chair of the special committee Brian Boyles, initiatives to change the state seal from Indigenous people and other people of color have been persistent for over 40 years.

Boyles said the changing of the seal also means changing the Latin phrase, as it represents a colonialist message.

“The Latin phrase is opaque and not something that is inclusive at a deeper level. I think the idea that liberty and the sword go hand in hand feels like a celebration of violence that was committed against Indigenous people,” Boyles said.

The goal was for the special committee to be composed of an even number of Indigenous non-Indigenous members. Boyles said this was an important element of the commission and its ability to fulfill its role.

“One thing that is really, really important is having that kind of equitable format. I think it’s also clear that people are individuals and they have their own perspectives. Neither side was a monolith,” Boyles said.

Boyles said the decision to change the seal was not clear-cut, as many layers of history and different perspectives were considered.

“Getting to a place where it wasn’t simply, ‘There are two sides of this issue,’ but a real acknowledgement that there are centuries of harm reflected in the seal was not as easy as it might [seem]. Also, different Indigenous members have different views on what should be changed,” Boyles said. “A really important question that we didn’t fully resolve is: by changing [the seal], are you repeating the erasure of Indigenous people that has happened in [other cases in] Massachusetts?”

Boyles said he feels that initiatives such as these are important in reconciling with the country’s history of forceful Indigenous assimilation and oppression.

“I feel that as a white male, I should be doing work and not just sitting on a commission. So, I did raise my hand if they needed leadership, and I’ve learned a lot in that process,” Boyles said. “I don’t regret trying to do whatever I can to take responsibility for the past.”

A seat for Cherokee Nation

Nearly 200 years ago, the Treaty of New Echota was signed into law by President Andrew Jackson. The treaty led the U.S. government to force 16,000 members of the Cherokee Nation on a deadly trek known as the Trail of Tears–4,000 of whom died before even arriving at their destination of Oklahoma.

On Wednesday, Nov. 16, 2022, the House Rules Committee held a hearing discussing a proposal to seat a non-voting delegate from the Cherokee Nation in Congress. The seat would be occupied by Kim Teehee, a veteran policy aide and Cherokee Nation official. Teehee’s ancestors survived the Trail of Tears.

Teehee is the Director of Government Relations for the Cherokee Nation and Senior Vice President of Government Relations Cherokee Nation Business. She was the first senior policy adviser for Native American affairs under President Barack Obama, where she was instrumental in crafting a series of tribal initiatives.

Kim Teehee of the Cherokee Nation seeks to be seated as a non-voting delegate in the House of Representatives.(VIA CHEROKEE NATION WEBSITE)

According to the Treaty of Echota, the Cherokee Nation is also “entitled to a delegate in the House of Representatives of the United States whenever Congress shall make provision for the same.” And yet, Congress has not enacted this provision, even two centuries later.

If seated, Teehee would join other non-voting delegates such as those from the District of Columbia and Guam who can introduce legislation and sit on committees, but not vote. Teehee said she would not pursue the right to a floor vote, mostly due to concerns about citizens of the Cherokee Nation already being represented by their respective pre-existing delegates.

According to Teehee, a seat for the Cherokee Nation is vital in order to accurately serve Indigenous communities and provide justice to those who died on the Trail of Tears.

“It gives Cherokee Nation a seat at the table when formulating laws that impact us and impact other tribes, too. It gives us a unique opportunity to educate members about tribes in this country and ways in which we need to adequately address the needs of Indian country,” Teehee said in an NBC News interview. “I also think it would send a strong message that the United States keeps its word by honoring the treaties and would give some measure of justice to those who lost their lives on that forced march.”

Teehee said she is optimistic about being seated and appreciates the bipartisan support shown during the hearing.

“What impressed me was how well-informed the members were, how thoughtful they were, and more importantly, the comments that they made were on a bipartisan basis and they were supportive,” Teehee said to NBC News. “We’re ready to move forward with the next step, which we believe is a vote. We’ve asked for a vote to happen, and we hope it will happen.”

Congress has yet to vote on the matter.

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