Does the name Linda Thomas ring a bell to you?
Probably not, but Ms. Thomas may be about to play a role in reshaping a small, but important, bit of Grafton iconography. Up for legitimate debate right now is the question of whether Grafton should do away with its nickname and mascot, the “Indians.”
Today, the Grafton news published a memorandum written by Love T. Richardson, Council Member and Tribal Clerk of the Nipmuc Nation Tribal Council, entitled “Statement on Native American Mascots.” In it, Ms. Richardson writes that the use of ethnic-related sports team mascots, in particular Native American sports team mascots, “has to stop.”
“Mascotting another group of people without their permission isn’t about love, respect, and honor but about privilege and power; the same privilege and power that discriminates against Native American people and our nations every single day.”
The debate surrounding the use of Native American names and imagery as sports team mascots is nothing new. The most famous example is the continuing and endless controversy surrounding the Washington D.C.-based National Football League franchise, the Redskins. If you’ve ever doubted the ability of something to hide in plain sight, consider the case of an iconic NFL football franchise with a blatantly racist name going relatively unnoticed for fifty years. And before you start in the comments section, this one is easy. Try it with the Blackskins or the Yellowskins.
That debate has filtered down to local sports teams and high school mascots, forcing a mostly white populace to wrestle with difficult questions of how we deal with our self-identity, and yet still remain respectful to the Native American community. Or, to maybe put it another way, it’s left an angry internet to accuse snowflakes of trying to ruin all their fun.
Which brings us to Linda Thomas. Linda Thomas lives in Tewsbury, and has children in the Tewksbury school system. Linda Thomas is also not from Tewskbury, and I don’t think I’m going out on a limb by suggesting that Linda Thomas is not Native American. But one day, Linda’s kids came home with forms to order Tewskbury “Redmen” apparel from the school.
You can probably guess where this is going. Linda brought her fairly-obvious-to-someone-not-from-there concern about the name to the Superintendent, and an effort was launched to change the name. A backlash ensued. People actually from Tewksbury, for whom Redmen is likely as much a personal identity as “American,” organized and started a Facebook group called “REDMEN… HERE TO STAY!!!!!” (all caps and five exclamation points, naturally).
On March 24, 2016, the Tewksbury School Committee voted 4-1 to keep the team’s Redmen name. Not satisfied with the outcome, eleven Tewksbury constituents compelled their State Senator, Barbara L’Italien, to file a bill on Beacon Hill that would ban Native American references in a public school’s team name, logo, or mascot, statewide.
Clearly angling for a Profile in Courage award, L’Italien wouldn’t even say whether she supports the bill she filed, stating “One of my jobs as a state senator is to help constituents get the issues they care about before the state legislature… I’m happy to make sure this group – and those who oppose the bill – have an opportunity to debate this idea in a public hearing.”
Following L’Italien’s stirring support for her own bill, our own Grafton News posted an on-line poll asking whether this bill had any support in Grafton, home to the Nipmuc Reservation, and where we call our local team the Grafton Indians. Our logo is a picture of a Native American in a headdress, despite the fact that the Nipmucs didn’t wear headdresses, apparently. Details.
The reaction was predictable. “How dare those PC liberals… everything that’s wrong with the world… offended about everything these days.” Many pointed out that they felt the name “Indians” was a nod to Grafton’s legitimate past as a home to the Nipmuc tribe, and that the name, which they’d grown up with, was nothing but respectful.
And listen, I get it. I’m sympathetic to that point. I went to two high schools. The first high school I went to was Salem High School in Salem, Massachusetts. We are the Witches. The Mighty Mighty Witches. And everywhere we go… people want to know… who we are… and we tell them, “We are the Witches. The Mighty Mighty Witches…”
Damn it. I just slipped into that.
I’m from there, and that’s part of who I am. You can’t “rebrand” that part of me. So, if some Wiccan were to come up to me and be like, “Yeah, I find your Witch imagery offensive” I’d probably tell that person to fuck off.
The second high school I went to was Concord High School, in Concord, New Hampshire. And really, if you ask me where I’m from, I’ll say Concord. I loved it there. It’s where I graduated. It’s home to me. But, it’s also a landlocked community whose high school team name is, strangely enough, the Crimson Tide. It never made any fucking sense. A year or so after I graduated, they came up with “
Ducky” “Tidey”, a yellow duck mascot, making the whole charade so much worse. I think they’ve since taken Ducky Tidey around back and shot him. [Editor’s note: See, I originally couldn’t even remember that stupid duck’s name until someone pointed it out.]
But that whole experience taught me that maybe high school mascots really aren’t all that important. Neither are NFL franchise names for that matter. The Chargers just moved to LA, where no one wants them. They’ll soon change their name and no one cares. But God forbid we change Redskins. Anyway…
After the Grafton News ran their poll, it was presented with the September 23 Nipmuc memo, which now has been made public. And now that the Nipmuc Nation has decided that the name should go, it’s hard to argue with it. Am I comfortable with the nickname? No, but I’m a white transplant from Salem/Concord. No one cares what I think. It’s not part of my identity.
But look, if it’s part of your identity, I’d ask you to consider the wishes of Nipmuc Nation who are tired of being mascots for white kids.
Mascots are different than other Native American imagery that the state uses. A mascot is really just a totem or a spirit animal that a school uses as representative of his own unique history. But it does it in a way that reduces something more complex to a caricature. And, apart from slavery, there is simply nothing more complex and shame inducing than our own relationship with Indian Nation. The United States government made it its policy and mission to wipe these people out in the name of its own manifest density. Our ancestors were the beneficiaries of their abject murder. So, when they say that they’re all set being your mascot too, you should listen. They no longer want to be caricatures. And it’s hard to blame them. The right thing to do is let it go, as hard is that may seem to someone who self-identifies as a Grafton Indian.
Thanks, Linda Thomas for having the balls to bring it up. I know I didn’t.
(And to give credit where credit is due, the kids at GHS were all over this two years ago. Check it out.)