Mitchell Chapman: Time to move past race-based mascots

Columnist Mitchell Chapman writes: "Taconic High School has changed their mascot from the braves to something to be determined at a later date, an action that has both been applauded by the local community and condemned by some Taconic High School alumni, who have written letters to The Eagle arguing that the use of the word 'braves' was not offensive, and who have petitioned unsuccessfully to reinstate the name."

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PITTSFIELD — Taconic High School has changed their mascot from the braves to something to be determined at a later date, an action that has both been applauded by the local community and condemned by some Taconic High School alumni, who have written letters to The Eagle arguing that the use of the word "braves" was not offensive, and who have petitioned unsuccessfully to reinstate the name.

The counterargument is very simple: Using "braves" as a mascot is offensive because it is race-based, and appropriates and denigrates Native American culture. While it is true that the English language is constantly evolving and one could interpret the word "braves" as a way to broadly describe brave people, that is not how the word is currently used in the English language, and as such, there is only one way to interpret the name, especially when you take into account the explicit intent of the students who proposed and voted for the name in 1969, when the school opened.

To put it frankly, the predominantly white city of Pittsfield never had a legitimate claim to the word "braves," and it was always inappropriate as a mascot. It reduces the legacy of a people forced off their land — the very Mohicans that they claim to honor now live in Wisconsin, and are against "all uses of race-based Indian logos, mascots, names, and images" — into caricatures and good-luck charms. Using Native American culture without consultation of the tribes who closely guard that heritage should be looked down upon, as without any input or collaboration from them, it is inevitable that a whitewashed and dishonest version of their culture will be presented in some way. Or, as former Eagle sports editor Geoff Smith put it in his column on the subject "cultural appropriation masked as school spirit."

Truth be told, Taconic has not been the only or worst offender. Where I went to high school — Wahconah — owes its name to a local tale about a Mohican maiden of the same name, often referred to as the legend of Wahconah Falls, of which the school presents a very brief version of on their website. Wahconah's mascot for years has been the warriors, often accompanied by stereotypical imagery of a Native American in a headdress sporting the school's colors, as well as feathers and arrows, that unfortunately reinforces the "warrior savage" stereotype, in which Native Americans are not portrayed as the modern, progressive tribes they are today, but rather as unintelligent, savage people. It highlights the precarious slope on which we position ourselves using Native American names, especially where sports teams are involved, which Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. of Cherokee Nation described perfectly in a statement provided to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution on the subject:

"While some team names may not appear derogatory or offensive as others, the usage and imagery misrepresents the culture of our people. When teams use Native mascots, there is also no way to control the cultural appropriateness on team jerseys, imagery promoted or local fan bases. ... All across the United States, fans embrace stereotypes of American Indians — war bonnets, face paint, crying war chants and making tomahawk-chopping gestures — and mock our culture as though we are vestiges of the past. This does not honor Cherokee traditions, nor do they honor our fellow Native brothers and sisters."

It's worth noting that Wahconah has since changed its logo to a blue "W," but it will still need to make a conscious effort to be respectful of the native legend it is named after.

Crafting bridges

It's understandable why Taconic alumni are upset about the name change. It's hard to admit something so closely attached to a place that has been meaningful for so many generations of students is wrong and hurtful. But reinstating the problematic mascot is not the answer.

I think one of the key responsibilities of being an adult in America is to identify and correct areas in society that are wrong, even if we have fond memories or good experiences with them; to look at the world with nuance, and be able to identify not only the good but also the bad in our norms and institutions, and to have the strength to do the right thing.

We must be honest with ourselves. Our government and many of our European ancestors did not have the best relationship with Native Americans, and naming schools and mascots after them and appropriating their race and cultural identities do little to heal the wounds of the past, which run deep and are often ignored. Native Americans have not only been subject to hundreds of years of systematic oppression, but also destruction of their people and culture, enduring the worst humanity has to offer.

If we truly want to honor the native people who once lived in the Berkshires, we need to divert our attention from adopting their names and direct it toward reaching out to the modern tribes whose ancestors once donned them, forming collaborative, constructive relationships with them, and to make a commitment to teach their history in an honest, objective way.

There is little we can do to make up for the sins committed against Native Americans in the past. But we can shape a better future by crafting communal bridges and fostering an understanding and respect for their cultures.

Mitchell Chapman is an Eagle page designer/copy editor and columnist.


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