WEST NEWBURY — The Pentucket Regional School Committee voted unanimously Tuesday night to reopen a discussion on changing the Sachem mascot.
Chairwoman Dena Trotta said the committee aims to make a decision on the issue in September.
The Retire the Sachem Coalition, made up of current and former Pentucket students, issued a call by email earlier this month for the committee to officially retire the Sachem amid construction of a new middle-high school.
The coalition also attached an open letter written in February 2017 by Paul Pouliot, the current Sag8mo (chief) of the Cowasuck Band of the Pennacook-Abenaki People, condemning the use of Indigenous mascots and "racist and misused Indigenous terms," including the Sachems.
"We as a tribal organization and representatives of the greater contemporary Indigenous community can only tell you that we are offended by your continued use of Indigenous names, mascots, logos, images, symbols and ceremonies," Pouliot wrote without naming any specific schools or organizations.
"If you really want to honor us, you will need to acknowledge and respect us as a people," he added in the letter. "Honor us by getting rid of your 'cartoon like' Indian logo and change your offensive team name."
The coalition also said Pentucket has the opportunity to rebrand as it constructs its new school.
The issue coincides with numerous calls across the country to remove racist mascots, statues and other imagery. One of the most notable recent cases is the Washington pro football team announced it would officially retire its mascot, and develop a new name and logo.
More than three dozen public schools in Massachusetts reference or use caricatures of Indigenous people as their mascots.
A petition to retire the Sachem as the mascot at Pentucket, drafted by the coalition and addressed to local and state officials, garnered more than 3,200 signatures.
During the meeting Tuesday via Zoom, Pentucket alumna and West Newbury resident Audra Foster spoke in favor of replacing the mascot.
“There is no valid reason to keep the mascot because by keeping it, we as a Pentucket community are choosing to perpetuate symbolic racism and trauma and the misuse of names and images by stealing from a culture that is not ours and has been stolen from for centuries, Foster said. “By having this mascot represent our schools, we are appropriating, stereotyping and erasing Indigenous culture. … I believe it is imperative that we retire the mascot now.”
Julia Seeley, a rising Pentucket sophomore, said she believes the mascot makes the school seem “unwelcoming to minority students."
“There’s no denying that we are a mostly white school, so having a Native American mascot gives the impression that we are open to racist stereotypes because they do not affect us," she said. "Even though some argue that we should change our curriculum to include Native American history while keeping our mascot.
“By having a Native American as our mascot, Native Americans have said we could have no connection with their history or culture. They said it makes them seem like a costume that we are happy to put on. We do not have to deal with the intergenerational trauma that they experience, but we proudly say we are like them. Endorsing this type of culture and representation in a school leads to more widespread cultural stereotyping and biases.”
Ashley Linnehan, a 2015 Pentucket alumna and Merrimac resident, recalled being ashamed of her school’s mascot as a student when she saw one of her white peers dressed in Native American garb at a pep rally.
“We cannot say that using fellow human beings as our mascot is OK if we are not the ones directly affected by it, we have to listen to and respect the voices of thousands of people who are,” Linnehan said.
She urged the district to implement a curriculum that "depicts the truth about Native Americans, how they were driven from their land, murdered and kidnapped from their homes as children, and robbed of their culture by the white settlers.”
Staff writer Jack Shea can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 978-961-3154. Follow him on Twitter @iamjackshea.