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Ray Duckler

Ray Duckler: Merrimack Valley took pride in change; Will Belmont follow?

A light clicked on at Merrimack Valley High School 10 years ago, when the school changed its nickname from the Indians to the Pride.

Will Belmont High School soon flip the switch, too?

We’ll know more on April 16, when the school’s student council hosts an open forum to discuss Belmont’s name, the Red Raiders. Belmont is one of 24 schools in the state clinging to an image based on a race of people.

And a narrow, stereotypical image at that.

“All you have to do is ask if you believe Native Americans are a race of people,” said former MV art teacher Dan Dalphonse of Concord, a leading voice in turning the light on in Penacook. “And if you do, then you’d understand. What other races are used as a mascot? I wouldn’t want to be the Merrimack Valley Negroes or the Merrimack Valley Jews.”

Neither Belmont’s student council president, nor its principal, Dan Clary, wanted to discuss their upcoming event, telling me there was nothing to write about, at least at this time.

But as long as American Indians are used to represent teams and schools, there’s always something to write about.

Here in this state, we have Apaches (Alton Central School), Mohawks (Colebrook Academy), Tomahawks (Merrimack High), Indians (Sanborn Regional High), Warriors (Winnacunnet High) and a second Red Raiders (Spaulding High).

Merrimack Valley changed its name to the Pride in 2004. Dalphonse, who retired in 2009 after 23 years at MV, helped make it happen.

He graduated from the University of Wyoming, then volunteered to work at a few American Indian reservations out there.

He began teaching here nearly 30 years ago. Back then, who knew these nicknames were offensive? You? Only when Native Americans spoke up did we realize how insensitive we were being. Call it evolution.

Dalphonse was ahead of the curve, noticing a sharp contrast between Wyoming and New Hampshire.

“I became very aware of the present-day situation of Native Americans,” Dalphonse said, “and, especially when I started teaching back East, about the apparent disassociation here with the real world of Native Americans. We don’t have the closeness or the number of people or the reservations here in the East. It was a long, slow process here.”

“I never looked upon the name as disrespectful, never looked upon the name as being racist,” added former MV baseball coach Ray Bailey, still teaching after 30 years. “But then again, I’m not Native American. I had never really thought about it, and when people started talking about it, I thought, ‘Who am I to say it isn’t improper?’ ”

By 2003, Athletic Director Kevin O’Brien, who coached the MV Indians to three basketball state titles, had heard enough and acted. “We had a couple of groups that had contacted us about potentially looking into it,” O’Brien said.

First, the school posed the question about a name change on its website, opening it to anyone. Then, with the climate right for change, MV students were asked to vote for a new name.

Pride won; Ravens finished a close second.

But be it lions or tigers or bears, any animal was better than calling a team the Indians.

“If you had enough people who were concerned about it, I felt it was the appropriate thing to do,” O’Brien said. “And don’t get me wrong, I cherished my times being involved here when we were the Merrimack Valley Indians, but we made the transition to the Pride, and I’m pleased with that.”

Casting American Indians in the narrow framework of fighting warriors is everywhere, from middle schools to high schools to colleges to pro teams.

MV officials say residents of their school district were agitated when the name changed. Was this political correctness gone wild?

Plus, some saw nothing wrong with calling a team the Indians, claiming it was an identity based on respect.

“That’s a very generous approach to what’s happening here,” Dalphonse said. “You stereotype the approach, view American Indians not as real, or as an historical aspect that isn’t here anymore. Take a look at what and who they are now and what they think, and you begin to realize we can’t stereotype them. It isn’t fair.”

Daniel Snyder, owner of the NFL’s Washington Redskins, doesn’t care. He recently donated 3,000 winter coats and a backhoe to the Omaha tribe in Nebraska, trying to blunt the pressure building on him to change his team’s name.

David Treuer, a writer and member of the Ojibwe tribe, saw through Snyder’s gifts and said so in the New York Times recently.

“The idea of the ‘Indian giver’ has always been deeply ironic, since it’s Indians who have been on the receiving end of some very bad gifts indeed,” Treuer wrote in his column. “Last week’s offering from Daniel Snyder . . . was only the latest.”

Later in the article, Treuer wrote, “The pity that Mr. Snyder seems to feel for Indians and our plight is intimately connected with the age-old ideas and images – strength, bravery, a warrior spirit, noble savagery – all of which are conjured by the cartoonish use of Indian names and mascots.”

Treuer also wrote that he believes the Redskins will change their name.

Someday.

Meanwhile, Belmont’s 7 p.m. meeting April 16 has been called for the right reason.

The Red Raiders no longer fits. Perhaps it never did.

“It’s just that we grow and we change and become more aware,” Dalphonse said. “I believe every single mascot that involves the use of a race of people should be looked at very hard.”

(Ray Duckler can be reached at 369-3304 or rduckler@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @rayduckler.)

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