The image of an Indian on the basketball court at Merrimack Valley can stay, for now

Monitor staff
Published: 12/10/2019 4:05:47 PM

The Merrimack Valley School Board, faced with opposing arguments about the appropriateness of its former mascot, chose to let residents decide at their town meeting if images of a Native American man should be ejected from the basketball court.

With tension rising during the nearly two-hour school board meeting, opinions moved back and forth, pitting school graduates, who see the image as a symbol of strength and courage, against Native Americans and others, who view the profile as insulting.

Quickly, it became clear that more time would be needed to properly gauge the pulse of the school district. The board voted to add the issue to the warrant at its annual town meeting in March for further discussion. Another article was discussed for possible inclusion, seeking public donations, not taxpayer money, to repaint the baselines.

Fred Reagan, the district’s director of operations and maintenance, estimated the cost to eliminate the mascot from the gym floor at $3,000.

The meeting included twists and turns, with a school board member suggesting that the court be left as is and the rest of the board nixing that idea. That opened the door for change, but the exact wording of any article added to the town warrant was not clear.

“I believe the only issue that remains is the image(s) on the gym floor,” Superintendent Mark MacLean explained by email Tuesday. “How that will be brought to the voters at the annual meeting has not been determined yet.”

The controversy actually dates back 15 years, when public pressure led the school board to change the school’s nickname, from the Indians to the Pride. The mascot was removed from center court, which placated critics for a while, despite the fact that the image remained inside the school – on a podium, a wooden sign, school diplomas, commencement brochures – and was never totally expelled from the school’s heritage.

Things changed in 2016, with the school’s 50th anniversary and new Hall of Fame on the horizon. To celebrate, the voters and school board chose to add more Native American logos, to Hall of Fame plaques and banners, as well as championship banners high on the gym wall.

But it was the banners on the parking lot light poles, which showed a lion on one side, the Native American on the other, that brought attention back to the issue, despite the fact that the banners were temporary and have already been removed. They were spotted, though, and that led to criticism that the name change years ago did not go far enough.

“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,” Paul Pouliot, the Tribal Historical Preservation Officer and a member of the Cowasuck Band of the Pennacook-Abenaki people, wrote in a prepared statement.

“If you really want to honor us you will need to acknowledge and respect us as people. Honor us by removing all of your inappropriate Indian logos, remove any Indian references and accept a new and non-offensive name and logo.”

Liam Jewell also read from prepared remarks, saying, “We’re all intelligent people here and I know the idea of a white person in blackface as a mascot would never fly. The tried and true old MV mascot of the Midwest Indian complete with the red skin and sharp nose and feather headdress never actually used by the local tribespeople of Penacook falls into the same category.”

Others against the re-emergence of the symbol charged school officials with trying to sneak it back into circulation. Merrimack Valley High School Principal David Miller said this was false.

“I would like to categorically deny the assertion that the administration is trying to bring back the Indian mascot and in doing so is trying to pull a fast one,” Miller said at the start of the meeting.

The removal of the parking lot banners would indicate the idea, was, indeed temporary. But the images on the basketball court dominated the discussion, and re-painting the baselines would include more work and money than lowering banners, suggesting that the Native American faces painted there might not be going anywhere anytime soon.

Meanwhile, with the opening of the Athletic Hall of Fame, and with championship banners including the old logo, sports has emerged front and center in the controversy. Bob Farrell helped MV win consecutive basketball championships in 1989-90. He sees the image as an important part of the school’s culture, a piece of its history, not meant to offend, but rather to inspire.

“The mascot I played for was never deemed racist, and we should be able to honor that mascot,” Farrell, who was at the meeting, said by phone. “It was never meant to be offensive. I see no problem with it at all.”

Farrell added that he fears this is just the beginning, that the movement to push for political correctness might one day wipe out all signs of the old mascot.

“I fear they won’t stop until every one is gone,” Farrell said. “Where does it end?”

Compromises were reached. A history room to display Indian artifacts will be created. A new curriculum to incorporate Native American culture and history will be introduced, in conjunction with the Commission on Native American Affairs. The parking-lot banners will be shown in October only, the month when new hall of fame inductees are announced. And the offensive images will be removed from athletic banners.

But those baseline images, part of a gym that attracts hundreds of fans for basketball games, created the biggest stir, and a conclusion on what to do there will have to wait until March, if not longer. Reagan, the district’s director of operations and maintenance, said the court won’t need refinishing for years.

School Board Chairwoman Seelye Longnecker remained optimistic, saying the profiles might be painted over right away if voters want them gone.

“We can put a warrant article on to raise and appropriate the money to do that and see what happens,” Longnecker told the audience. “And then that could happen instantly, if it is the will of the people to do that.”

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