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High schools reflect on former Native American mascots through historical projects

  • Merrimack Valley’s history room contains various school artifacts that display Native imagery. A large wooden sign, created by the Class of 1986 to commemorate the school’s first homecoming celebration, spans the length of the small room. Courtesy

  • In place of the school's former Native logo, Winnacunnet High School recently installed a 'W' on the gym floor. The school has retained its 'Warriors' moniker. —Courtesy

  • Merrimack Valley High School transitioned from the 'Indians' to the 'Pride' nearly two decades ago. The new logo depicts a lion and a lioness, maws open in a roar. —Courtesy

  • After resurfacing for the school’s 50th anniversary, Merrimack Valley’s former mascot became the subject of debate. The school board voted to create a history room, which now houses items such as the school’s original graduation podium and a large wooden coin crafted in 1984. Courtesy

Granite State News Collaborative
Published: 8/26/2021 2:50:41 PM

As the movement to end Native American sports mascots grows nationwide and in New Hampshire, two Granite State high schools that have made the switch are remembering – and growing from – their pasts.

Merrimack Valley High in Penacook and Winnacunnet High in Hampton are both removing Native imagery from their schools while embarking on community projects about the mascot changes. Despite strong emotions on all sides of the mascot debate, these schools aspire to move forward as one community – without forgetting their history but instead learning from it.

Winnacunnet High began phasing out the Native logo for its Warriors moniker last summer. The school is currently creating new images to replace the countless emblems on signs, nameplates, athletic wear and elsewhere. New ideas center around a “W” and pine trees, given the meaning of Winnacunnet – beautiful place of pines.

Merrimack Valley High started doing the same two years ago, having already transitioned from the “Indians” to the “Pride” in 2002. The  new logo depicts a lion and a lioness, maws open in a roar and accompanied by the words “The Valley.”

Winnacunnet

In Hampton, a series of interviews about Winnacunnet’s history is in the works. The project covers the school’s adoption of its Native mascot in the 1950s, the ongoing shift away from that Native imagery, and the reason for the change.

“It was clear to us that we wanted to tell the story of how that imagery first started and where it came from,” said Donna Couture, the extended learning opportunities coordinator at Winnacunnet. “It tumbled into something that we felt was a real necessity for our school community and Hampton at large.”

In addition to Couture, the project team includes Winnacunnet social studies teacher Stacy Brown, local librarian Stacy Mazur, and alumnae Corina Chao and Mary Casey – who had led the movement to ban Native imagery last summer.

The school initially planned the project as a display that would serve as an educational tool and recognize “where we appropriated the culture and how we can do better moving forward.”

As the group connected with more and more people during their research, they realized just how much there is to learn about indigenous culture and its connection to the Winnacunnet of today. They landed on the idea of an interview series.

“We want to interview a wide variety of people on camera,” Couture said. “It’s really important that we hear everybody’s voice, and that includes the voices of people who feel that we shouldn’t change anything. We want to understand fully where they’re coming from as well so that we can address it.”

During the project’s research stage, the group discovered that the intentions behind the original mascot seem to have been truly positive. Couture said community members consulted with members of the Pennacook-Abenaki and felt they were doing their “due diligence by representing” the indigenous people.

“They were representing the community with pride. The reason why we’re doing these videos is to help people understand there is a better way to honor that relationship,” Couture said. “That’s the motivation behind doing these interviews, making sure that our community can learn from it moving forward.”

In pursuing the project, Couture said the documentary team wants to avoid sweeping the past under the rug and instead promote community growth and understanding. Through the interviews, they hope to recognize the pride alumni feel for the Winnacunnet community while shining a light toward the future.

“We wanted to be able to honor that pride by saying, ‘We get why that was chosen as imagery at this point in history, but now we know better and we can do better,’ ” she said. “But doing better doesn’t mean just changing it and moving forward. Doing better means understanding why and maintaining the pride that we have in our school and our community and building that relationship with the indigenous people to honor their culture instead of appropriating it.”

The interviews will include tribal leaders Denise and Paul Pouliot of the Cowasuck Band of the Pennacook-Abenaki People, who played a large part in providing the school with guidance as it began phasing out the Native logos.

The camera will also turn to school administrators, athletic department employees, students, alumni, and other community members. Additionally, a current student plans to help film and edit the videos for course credit beginning this fall.

“All of us have been really digging into this, this last year,” Couture said. “We’re excited to put this into motion and get it going and have something concrete to share with the community.”

Merrimack Valley

The “Indian” mascot of Merrimack Valley’s past remained dormant for about 15 years before resurfacing for the school’s 50th-anniversary celebrations. When the debate over the former mascot came to a head at a school board meeting in 2019, the board voted to create a history room that would contain school artifacts that display Native imagery.

“We had some great conversations, and I believe that we’ve done the best thing,” Principal David Miller said.

Among the items in the history room is the school’s original wooden podium, which had stood at the helm of graduation ceremonies for decades. Engraved on the podium is the former school crest, an “Indian” head at its center.

There’s also a large wood sign created by the senior Class of 1986, commemorating the school’s first homecoming celebration. It reads “Merrimack Valley High School,” the words flanked by the Native logo on one side and an arrow and tomahawk on the other.

Though the COVID-19 pandemic has delayed significant progress in the history room, the school plans to continue developing the space throughout the upcoming school year.

“I think it’s significant for the kids to understand the ‘why,’ ” Miller said. “Why were we once referred to as Merrimack Valley Indians, and why is it that many people feel that’s not a problem, and others feel as though it is?”

Moving forward, Miller said the school hopes to develop curriculums on local indigenous history, partnering with the Mt. Kearsarge Indian Museum and the Indigenous New Hampshire Collaborative Collective.

“Ultimately, as a society, we’re trying to better ourselves, and education is a key component,” Miller said. “We are an educational institution, so we’re constantly using opportunities to reinforce the attributes that we want to cultivate within our kids. We want them to be quality human beings. We also want them to be informed and educated and empathetic to others.”

These articles are being shared by partners in The Granite State News Collaborative as part of our race and equity project. For more information visit collaborativenh.org.

Jenny Whidden is a Report for America corps member reporting on the New Hampshire State House and racial justice legislation for The Granite State News Collaborative, a statewide multimedia collective of nearly 20 media outlets and community partners working together. Prior to starting at the GSNC in June 2021, Whidden, of Rolling Meadows, Illinois, covered the Illinois State House and the pandemic for the Chicago Tribune. She holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Marquette University, where she was managing editor of the Marquette Tribune, the award-winning student paper. Whidden has reported for New Jersey’s Star-Ledger, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and the Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service, a nonprofit site.



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