Algonquin update on Mascot Study

by Beth Melo on December 17, 2020

Post image for Algonquin update on Mascot Study

Above: While the ARHS Athletics official symbol is still the Tomahawks as of now, it looks like the Boosters hedged their bets this holiday season by selling Spirit Wear that doesn’t sport the symbol. (top row images reflect the official logo and formerly featured gear, bottom row is from the current Spirit Store website)

This fall, Algonquin’s administration formed a study group to examine a new push* to change the high school’s mascot, the Tomahawks. Last week, Principal Sean Bevan issued an update on the work being done. 

According to Bevan, the school recently formed a Study Group for Mascot Review to:

develop a recommendation for the Northborough-Southborough Regional School Committee about whether the mascot should be changed and, if so, what the timeline and costs of that change may be.

In looking forward, the group first looked back at the mascot’s history for context. A timeline included the acknowledgement that behaviors banned over 20 years ago by the school as “demeaning” had returned over time. 

The study group was prompted by an online petition launched in June by “Students for Justice”. The initiative pushed our district to change the name of Algonquin Regional High School and eliminate the Tomahawk symbols as the school “mascot”. The petition highlighted student behavior related to the name and symbol:

The Algonquin name in conjunction with the Tomahawk mascot – which is an ax-like weapon – perpetuate racist stereotypes, classifying Natives as violent and barbaric. Since Algonquin Regional High School’s conception in 1959, racist attire, chants and behavior have been commonplace – disguised as school pride and excused as an attempt to honor Native people. This racism is unacceptable and must change immediately 

Subsequent public comments and private discussions led to an apparent agreement that the administration would focus on just reconsidering the mascot, not the school name.

It’s worth noting that the only public commenter who opined on the issue to the Regional School Committee in July spoke in favor of keeping the school name. The ARHS alum described herself as someone with “white skin privilege” who has Native American heritage through an Algonquin tribe. She argued that students were conflating issues and changing the name would be an act of “erasure”, making “something that should be visible, invisible.”

That alum, Dr. Mary Rice-DeFosse, is now part of the 16 member Study Group. 

Last night, Bevan’s update to the Regional School Committee targeted April 28th for the group to make its recommendation. In the meantime, the group will meet monthly. Between those meetings, there will likely be subcommittee meetings. The first meeting was held on December 9th.

According to Bevan’s email to parents, information shared with the group shared included:

In 1997, ARHS undertook a close examination of the tomahawk in a process overseen by the Athletic Director. The school brought in individuals with opposing viewpoints on the topic, and a schoolwide vote by voice was taken, resulting in keeping the symbol. The vote was endorsed by the School Committee with the stipulation that student behaviors and customs that are demeaning to Native Americans be eliminated. These include wearing stereotypical Native American dress and doing ‘the tomahawk chop’ at athletic events. However, in the absence of systems for maintaining these changes, some of the behaviors returned over time.

The final “historical information” bullet focused on the aspirational use of the school’s symbol:

In June 2018, as a farewell gesture, outgoing superintendent Christine Johnson gifted a ceremonial tomahawk to ARHS in an effort to deepen the community’s appreciation for the tomahawk as an honorable, appropriate symbol for the school and characterizing the tomahawk as a tool, not weapon.

Bevan’s update highlighted that the work and the members studying the issue overlaps the district’s Coalition for Equity. (The Regional Committee was also updated on that work last night.**)

Bevan’s summary of the first meeting, outlines the group’s consensus so far:

  • The school’s history is largely unknown to students, staff, and families and should be prioritized in plans to process the mascot issue with the community.
  • The information should be incorporated into students’ coursework and/or incoming students’ orientation to ARHS so that our history is well understood by the student body.
  • An examination of the cost and timeline for a possible change to the mascot will be necessary, but doing so at this time would be premature.
  • The most immediate next step would be to conduct research on the impact of using marginalized groups as mascots. 

Bevan promised to keep Algonquin families informed of the group’s work. He also plans to create a web page compiling the work and materials. 

You can view the materials posted so far here: Update email, Study Group Agenda, Slides Reviewed, Historical Notes

Anyone with feedback can email MascotStudyGroup@nsboro.k12.ma.us.

One group that may be sending critical emails is the organizers of the petition that garnered over 3,500 signatures. An Update added to the petition on November 2nd criticized the Regional School Committee for even forming the Study Group. The post characterized it as “attempting to delay mascot change process”:

Obviously, we take issue with many aspects of this Study Group. First, in the meeting, we called into question the necessity of creating a “study group,” since many other high schools in Massachusetts have implemented a mascot change without so much discussion. Second, we questioned the lack of any enrolled Native activist representation, specifically an enrolled member of Nipmuc Nation, on the Study Group, which is clearly an egregious oversight. Lastly, the timeline of the Study Group is months too long.

Organizers lamented that the committee was proceeding despite their lodging of those complaints. But the administration did respond to an element of the criticism by reexamining who to include in the study group. In a subsequent email to ARHS students, Bevan sought to recruit more students for the group. In addition, Bevan explained to me:

along with the superintendent and at the encouragement of student leaders, I sought to add a member who has Native American heritage. Though no one person can conclusively speak for all Native Americans, we thought that having some representation on the Study Group was important, and I invited Dr. Mary Rice-DeFosse, who has Native American roots and is an ARHS alum.

Also in the group are Principal Bevan (as Chair) and 14 other members. The group represents in overlapping roles:

  • 5 students (including 3 members of Coalition for Equity, a student-athlete, the Student Council president and a Harbinger staff member)
  • 5 Parents of ARHS students
  • 3 School Committee members
  • The Athletic Director
  • The APTO president
  • An ARHS Boosters member
  • An ARHS staff member
  • A member of the faith community
  • A parent of alum (& former School Committee member)

As I noted in the caption up top, I discovered none of the gear currently being sold in the ARHS Spirit Wear shop sports the T-hawks symbol. Instead it features the “A” logo designed by a student this summer.

*[Editor’s Note: There have been previous campaigns to change the Tomahawks mascot. Full disclosure, I was personally involved in a 1980s initiative.

In 1988-89, I was part of the high school paper editorial board when we made a similar push. (Though, at that time, we didn’t ask to rename the school.) At that time, we changed the name of the paper from The Smoke Signal to The Harbinger. (Not in the 70s as erroneously noted in the school’s timeline.) The Regional School Committee decided to put the decision to a student vote.  The vast majority voted in favor of keeping the mascot. According to the school’s posted timeline, very similar events occurred in 1997 – unless they are mistakenly listing the events of 1988 as taking place in 1997.

Bevan tells me that he has gotten conflicting reports on The Harbinger history from people also confident of their recollections. He plans to work with Harbinger staff to find clarification.]

** The Coalition for Equity also grew out of public concerns voiced this summer over systemic issues related to racial justice this summer. (You can read more about that here.) Last night, Rhoda Webb updated the Regional School Committee that the 33 member Coalition has held three meetings this fall. They are in the process of adding more students to add 2 per grade to ensure continuity of the work. They formed 3 sub-working groups: Community Outreach; Curriculum & Instruction; and Policies, Handbooks, Procedures & Practices. During meetings time is dedicated to listening to members’ stories so they can “gain a deeper understanding of each other and build trust as we embark on this crucial work of equity.”

Previous post:

Next post: