How To Change a Mascot Without Tearing Apart Your School

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S1: You know, I find myself having more sleepless nights than I can remember. And it starts to wear on a little bit and you start to get tired and you end up talking about it so much it becomes an us versus them.

S2: Welcome to how to. I’m Amanda Ripley. We’re all pretty accustomed by now to ugly politics at the national level, but increasingly as the culture wars heat up. It can feel like these fights are happening uncomfortably close to home. More and more local policy debates that should be kind of boring seem to turn into full blown feuds. Think Hatfields and McCoys. Suddenly, our neighbors, the same people we wave to in the grocery store and sit next to in school plays start to feel like our arch enemies. A version of this is playing out now in the historic coastal village of Dartmouth, Massachusetts. The town seal, which dates back to 1893, reads in Latin. Service through kindness and peaceful means. But that’s not how things have looked lately, which is why our listener Keith reached out. He grew up in Dartmouth and went to the very same high school his kids now attend. But he feels like the school’s mascot needs an update.

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S1: For the Dartmouth Indians. And the logo is a sort of a bust of a Native American, sort of in the traditional, I guess, warrior. BLOCK There’s been talk over the years of replacing it or retiring it, and there’s always been a lot of, you know, tension in the school committee and whether or not to do that. And we never have done it. There are a lot of vocal town members who would like to keep the keep the mascot. And then there are also a group that are looking to change it as well.

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S2: Keith is in that second group, the one that’s fighting to change the mascot. But he also remembers what it was like playing football with the mascot on his helmet.

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S1: You know, we have the stickers with the logo on it that you put on your helmet. So I definitely appreciate the pride aspect of it. Over the years, I think there’s been more of an awareness and more of an attention to not doing quite the level of stereotypical type things. They have banned the the tomahawk chop. They still actually do it. You know, they’re high school kids. I did it when I was in high school, too. But as an adult, just kind of learning more about it that it really is not appropriate to be doing this in 2022.

S2: A lot of people have had a similar evolution and thinking as Keith has had. You’ve probably heard about the Cleveland Indians changing their name to the Guardians last year, and my own city’s NFL team is now known as the Washington commanders. But in Dartmouth, there’s an interesting wrinkle.

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S1: The current logo was drawn by a Native American student back in the seventies, and he still lives in town, actually. So there’s a large number of that family lives in town, and they are very much supporters of maintaining the current logo. They see it as a sense of pride.

S2: Oh, interesting. That’s a bit of a twist. So where does the debate currently stand? What’s happening now?

S1: It’s a school committee issue. It ended up being put on our town elections this past week as a non-binding referendum question about whether or not we should keep the the logo or not. So that was actually so we actually just had those elections and 81% of the town voted to keep the the current mascot, which is disappointing.

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S2: Since the referendum was nonbinding, the decision still lies with the school board, which has been split on the issue. But the campaign to remove the mascot just lost a lot of its momentum, and the very act of holding a vote forced everyone to pick sides.

S1: Oh, absolutely. The Pro Mascot Group, you know, refers to themselves as Defend Dartmouth. So next thing you know, you started seeing all these lawn signs up and there was, you know, who’s got to defend Dartmouth lawn sign, who doesn’t? It’s so hard to have a debate about it anyways, but that really raised the stakes.

S2: So today on the show, how to fight for what you believe in without making everything worse.

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S1: How does somebody, you know, a community member in this type of situation, how do you do something that is productive and isn’t just taking cheap shots at the other side or sort of inflaming the situation.

S2: To help you navigate this next phase of the mascot debate? We brought in someone who has seen this fight up close many times before.

S3: My name is Maulian Dana. I serve as the Penobscot Nation Tribal Ambassador, which is one of the four federally recognized indigenous tribes in Maine.

S2: Maulian has been working on this issue with government, schools and tribes for about two decades now.

S3: When I was in high school, so about 20 years ago, there was maybe 30 schools in Maine that had these Indian mascot. And some of them, you know, it was like, Oh, this is hurting you. That’s enough. We’ll change our minds. You know, some of them really dug in.

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S2: She has some hard earned wisdom about when to push and when to pull and how to keep fighting in a way that doesn’t tear apart your whole community. Stay with us. When Maulian Dana was growing up in Maine, she was proud to be a member of the Penobscot tribe. But as she got older, she started to realize that not everybody saw her the way she saw herself.

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S3: So I remember I remember being really young and seeing Walt Disney’s Peter Pan.

S1: Teach them Paleface brother. Oh, about Redmond.

S2: Good. This should be most enlightening.

S3: So they have this scene where everybody goes to Never Neverland. And for some reason, there’s this, like, Indian encampment there, and there’s a whole lot of stereotypes on display. They sing a song called What Makes the Red Man Red? And you know that the the Native people have big red noses and they’re just kind of foolish. And I remember thinking that was so different from how I saw myself and saw our people. But at such a young age, you know, probably before I was ten, that was kind of like stored to the back of my brain. Okay, that was weird, but but I’m moving on. So by the time I’m a teenager, I see some of these Indian mascots in action. There was one high school basketball game where both teams had an Indian mascot. One was the Indians and one is the Warriors. And there’s fake feathers or fake headdresses. There’s chanting, there’s, you know, chopping. All of the things that Keith spoke about. And I felt so angry. You know, all of those feelings of confusion turned into anger real quick. You know, as a teenager, you’re kind of finding your place and, you know, figuring a lot of things out anyway. So so this was really jarring to me and I was lucky to be surrounded by adults. That really guided me through those emotions. Throughout my life, I learned why they were harmful. I learned why, you know, stereotypes promote division amongst people. And we’re never going to get to real humanity and truth if we’re seeing people as kind of caricatures.

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S2: Yeah, I’m curious. Are there ways to go through this conflict that really help people understand each other and are productive without being destructive? Like, do you believe that’s possible?

S3: Absolutely. And I don’t want to, you know, put out the impression that you’re going to reach everyone and that you will change every heart and mind because you won’t. You know, there are some folks that they were really double down on this. You know, this is mine. You’re not taking it for me. Unfortunately, the mascot issue is seen through a political lens at times. It’s like, oh, this these woke liberal, you know, whatever are coming for our freedom of speech. So something that we’ve tried to do is stress, you know, this is about our shared humanity as human beings. That is what can get through to people. I found, you know, because I came into this as a very young, hotheaded, you know, you know, indigenous youth, you know, why are you doing this to us? Why isn’t enough to just say that you’re hurting us? And thankfully, through, you know, my maturity process and my career, I’ve found that anger rarely changes minds.

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S2: You said a few really interesting things here. One, if I’m hearing you right, is that anger doesn’t work the way we wanted to. And now you allow yourself to be a little more vulnerable than you did before, which I would I would argue, is not our first instinct. Right. In these. That’s. That’s not the intuition.

S3: I would get threats on Facebook saying that, you know, I should be raped, I should be killed. If I come into their town. I need to, quote unquote, watch my back, you know, and then racist things like they wanted to to like pass me around the teepee after I was dead, you know, really like sick stuff. So you’re totally right. Your instinct isn’t to share more of yourself and make more of your being available, you know, to these people that want to harm you. So it takes a little I don’t quite know what the word is. It takes a little bit of, you know, resilience and in keeping your eye on the prize to to stay the course. And I think it really helps that, you know, we have factual research showing that these mascots are harmful. You know, we have the American Psychological Association, we have the National Congress of American Indians, and we have all of these great bodies of work. So that when you do have a Native American family that says, oh, we’re proud of this, we like this, you know, you can say, we understand we have. But before that. But here is, you know, the lived experience of thousands of indigenous people. Here are the scientific findings of these professional organizations. Here is evidence of the harm.

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S2: Mascots can seem like such a small, harmless thing. But when researchers randomly assign Native American teenagers to be exposed to these images, they find again and again that the ones who see the mascots come away with little lower self-esteem and sense of self-worth, more so than if you just tell them statistics about the real problems of Native American communities like high suicide rates. But not everybody believes these findings or knows about them. So in this case in Dartmouth, members of the Wampanoag tribe. Correct. Were invited to speak, like you mentioned, Keith and Sean Carney, who’s a member of the tribe, read a statement in support of of keeping the mascot. I think we have something cued up here.

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S1: The Dartmouth Indian. Its symbolism, its history and the pride behind it has unified our families for generations. Despite the battle cries of a few non-tribal voices in Dartmouth, as well as a few out of town organizations, the symbol is not disrespectful, disparaging or derogatory in any manner.

S2: Maulian. I’m guessing that this is not the first time you’ve seen this kind of reaction, and I’m curious what your responses.

S3: So when thinking about the indigenous experience in America and even Canada, I think something we’ve always been afraid of is erasure of our people and for us, you know, that erasure can feel like we don’t have, you know, rights to our resources and jurisdictional powers, but to other Native people that might feel like, you know, I’m being erased if you take the Land O’Lakes butter lady off the label, you know, because I like seeing a native woman, you know, even if it’s stereotypical, I like seeing part of myself out there, you know, in society. Or that might feel like, okay, all these kids are wearing an Indian on their jersey. I feel like that’s a part of me. And I feel like if they take that away, those kids won’t know who I am. And that’s what I’m hearing here. It’s this kind of, you know, the tribe, these tribal citizens might feel like they’ve been overlooked in this process and they feel not seen, not heard, not validated. So if this mascot’s gone, they feel further made invisible.

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S1: We do have a common ground there. Both sides of the debate have expressed that we need to do more education within our schools and within our town to honor our Native American history. So if the mascot stays and we get a more robust curriculum that talks about, you know, the Native American history of our area and all of those types of things, and people start to understand it more. I think that would be some level of victory.

S3: Yeah, I think education is always the answer. It can never hurt anything. And I love the quote. It’s hard to hate up close. My dad is a cultural educator, so he’ll go into schools and build, you know, birch bark wagons and little miniature ones and teach basket making and talk about how our history is connected to our present. And you’d be surprised how many people don’t even realize there’s still tribal communities and tribal nations. And the mascot that Keith described, kind of the proud looking Indian warrior. It looks great. You know, it’s not a bad image and it’s respectable. But even that, you know, I don’t look like that. A lot of people in my family certainly don’t look like that. So it locks you in that, you know, caricature and stereotype of what people think you should be. And when we educate about not just history, but the modern day presence of tribal people and what we’re facing now, it really sends, you know, a lifeline between groups of, hey, this isn’t just a separate historical group of people. These are your neighbors. These are people with feelings and lives.

S2: So here’s our first insight. These debates, as painful as they are, can create openings, not just educate people about history, but also to introduce people to real life, modern Native Americans who are not in warrior dress, who are three dimensional human beings, and that can create lasting shifts, the kind that matter as much or more than any mascot or symbol. When we come back, we’re going to learn how to stay the course and not get sucked into petty beefs, even when you’re really provoked. Don’t go anywhere. We’re back with our listener Keith and Maulian Dana, tribal ambassador for the Penobscot Nation. Usually the first place to start in any big controversy is with the one conflict we can control, the one in our own heads.

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S1: It’s funny, like when you and I just find this in general with conflict when I maybe had that gotcha moment. It’s very unsatisfying. It’s not worth it. Like, in that case, like, it’s going to keep me up at night. It’s going to bother me. I’m going to keep thinking about it.

S2: We evolved to be in groups. And so any time there’s like a wedge in our group, whether it’s our town or our tribe or whatever it is. It’s very uncomfortable. And we we kind of want that feeling to go away, you know, and it it just nags at you, you know, because we find safety in group unity. So do you think that’s part of it?

S1: You want to have a level of comfort? You know, I don’t in this case, you know, I don’t want to go to the grocery store and drive by lawn signs that are oppose my viewpoint or sort of like it just sort of raises your blood pressure a little bit, gets you a little bit annoyed, gets you kind of a little mad and angry. And that’s certainly no way to live. So stressful.

S3: I used to come at this work, like with a little chip on my shoulder, maybe, you know, I felt insulted. So when you’re when you’re feeling that way, it’s easy to talk down to people maybe or come into to this with. Of course I’m right, you know? Like, why aren’t you?

S2: There’s a subtle tone of.

S3: Right superiority, right? Yeah. Oh, absolutely. And I think that’s why I had to shift, you know, to. Okay, I’m going to put myself in these people’s shoes. You know, think about other people coming into my town saying, what you’re doing is bad and wrong. You need to change it. You know, that can definitely get your hackles up a little bit. And when we’re talking about, you know, the history of my people and colonization and attempted genocide, sometimes that doesn’t make for great open lines of communication with the people who are descendants, you know, of the colonizers. And they’ve really benefited from our trauma and from our loss. And when you’re in a system of power that is benefiting you, you don’t want that threatened. You know, you don’t want that questioned. You feel like you’re entitled to that or you’ve earned it. So when voices that have been silenced for so long are coming at you saying you’re wrong and we know better than you that that will produce a clash.

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S2: So here’s our next insight to fight smart in any conflict, you want to try to understand how the other side feels, what is really underneath their arguments. You don’t have to agree. You just want to understand their perspective well enough so you can make what you were saying. Horrible to at least some of them.

S1: It feels like a little bit of a political like you got to retreat a little bit like it feels to me like I think we really need to focus on the education and if that is where we have common ground, then let’s really do that. If we’re going to do an educational program, the school department’s going to have to take the lead in that and including it into curriculums and including it into programming. And so it seems like it’s a lot of work in this can take a lot of time to do that. And even if you do it well, you really can’t do it well enough to justify keeping keeping it either.

S2: Do you feel like it’s kind of like at odds? There’s a sort of it’s definitely a paradox.

S1: Yeah, there’s a major paradox here. And, you know, how do you talk about diversity, equity and inclusion when you fundamentally have this just kind of sitting there? It’s like the elephant in the room.

S3: Yeah, I think it’s a perfect instinct to think it’s at odds with keeping the mascot. I think that if you if you take that on and institute robust programming for the school, you will have a mascot change within five years. I just think that waking people up to the real experience of indigenous people, you know, leaves them in this place where they kind of get it. From what I’ve seen. And that can take a little while to get there. But. But I think that that’s good. Yeah. So you’re saying.

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S2: Kids who believe that this is not sustainable is right and great. You’re saying, like, if you you I mean, that’s the point, right? You’re yeah, I would lean into that paradigm totally.

S3: I would embrace that paradox because I think I’ve personally seen so many of these schools change and one that happened also in high school, that’s next door to where I live. They were the Indians for a very long time and they changed in 2005. The year after that, my brother played football for a different high school and I was at one of his games and they played Old Town and Old Town One, and there was this huge celebration. They were the coyotes that instead of the Indians and you know, they’re dumping the Gatorade on each other and, you know, jumping up and down and the crowds going crazy. And I looked at my parents and I said, you know, look, they’re just as proud to be coyotes. It’s not about being the Indians, you know, it’s about each other and these kids and the fans and feeling that, you know, community pride, it’s not about that Indian mascot. It’s about their pride as people.

S2: Here’s another good insight. Embrace the paradox. Focus on the long game, even if the short term results aren’t what you’d hoped for. After years of debate in 2019, Maine banned all state schools and colleges from using Native American mascots. It was the first state to do so. But that doesn’t mean that everybody was on board.

S3: The absolute last school to change is a town called Skowhegan, and that was a battle that went on for well over a decade and and just about every ugly, uncomfortable, tense situation you could think of. And that process, you know, started off very cordial. And we came and presented to a subcommittee, and they asked us to keep coming back and have these meetings. And slowly, this group of protesters would form outside these meetings with signs and wearing other Indians gear. And this led to a public forum the two days before they decided to close a public forum to residents of the town only. And so I had organized a big crowd. I had been told that we could come speak there. I tried to speak anyway, and a police officer escorted me out of the forum and people were booing us. People were yelling at us outside, telling us to go home. And that’s some of the the kinder language they were using. And two weeks after that, they had a vote and they voted to keep the mascot.

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S2: The other thing to keep in mind is that a fight over mascots is always about more than just the mascot. Usually it’s about a fear of not belonging or a sense of humiliation. Whatever the case, it’s really important to start talking about that.

S1: I think the understory of this conflict is more of a political understory. Fear that I have is that this will not be the last debate that the town engages in, that this is sort of the beginning of more debates and more pushing back on what’s appropriate for the schools to be teaching and things like that. I think we’re seeing. I think that is the undercurrent here, too. I think that’s a really good point. I think it’s sort of a political undercurrent.

S2: Once debates get hijacked by partisans and cable TV pundits, it’s really hard to change people’s minds as we keep seeing. But at the local level, you have an opportunity that you just don’t get at the national level. You’re going to run into each other outside of the arena.

S3: I’ve seen people just kind of, you know, change their mind because of real human connections. You know, in Skowhegan, one of the school board members started the Skowhegan Indian Pride Group, and they got this student to be like the face of the protests. And then he would be out there outside of all of our meetings with his, you know, Indian pride sign. And he would give interviews in the media and after the public forum that I wasn’t allowed to speak at. And when I got escorted out, he came and found me. After the meeting, he said, I want you to know that what I just saw was so unfair. And I’ve really listened to your words at all these meetings and I’m sorry for my part and making this ugly. And I want you to know that you changed my mind because I saw pain in your eyes tonight. And he said that his religion as a Christian, you know, taught him to try to see everybody as as equal of love and respect. So it was something, you know, at a very low moment for me where I thought that I had just, you know, messed up and set us back. And, you know, in that moment, I didn’t even realize this kid was watching and so affected by what had happened to me. And it kind of clued him in on some of the injustice around all of this. And eventually we did get to a place where the majority of the school board voted to change that mascot in 2019.

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S2: Keith, does this make you feel hopeful or.

S1: It does. It does. I have a I have a smile on it feels like this is you know, you study history for a reason and you sort of see that there are patterns and it feels like we are sort of going through the natural pattern of towns that kind of dig in on it and really do take more time. Like it feels feels like, yeah, we’re sort of on that track with the saying, the arc of history is is long, but often bends toward justice.

S3: Yeah, I think that, you know, there’s no expiration date on social justice, right? Or bringing about solving inequities. And the only collateral damage and I don’t want to minimize it are, you know, native students, native citizens that that are, you know, seeing these mascots and being harmed by them, that they absolutely matter. And it’s, you know, it’s okay to put it off and get the ducks in a row. But but I think that it’s important to to keep up those education efforts in the meantime to minimize that harm as much as you can.

S2: Thank you to Keith for reaching out to us. We hope you’ll keep in touch and let us know what happens in your town. And to Maulian Dana for all of her great advice. If you want to know more about her work, check out her TEDx talk. We’ll link to it in the show notes. How about everyone else? Have you had a mascot conflict or some other controversy in your town lately? How did you handle it? What happened? Let us know by sending us a note at how to at Slate.com or leave us a voicemail at 6464954001. By the way, we heard from a lot of you about our recent episode on writing with Anna Quindlen and John DICKERSON. We got a really nice note from a listener named Christopher, who was so inspired by the episode that he asked his 70 year old father to start writing down the stories of his life, to share with his kids and grandkids, as he put it. What if I need you when you’re gone? His dad said he’d think about it, and within a day he’d ordered a journal. Thank you, Christopher, for sharing this story with us and to all of you who reached out. How TOS executive producer is Derrick John Katie Shepherd and Rosemary Belson produced the show. Our theme music is by Hannah Brown, remixed by Merritt Jacob, our technical director. This is our last show with the wonderful Amber Smith. Good luck, Amber, on your new gig. Charles Duhigg created the show. I’m Amanda Ripley. Thanks for listening.