Duckler: Image is everything, especially in the MVHS gym

  • The Merrimack Valley High School Pride symbol inside the gymansium last week. GEOFF FORESTER

  • The outside banner at Merrimack Valley High School has two graphic symbols, the old Native American symbol and the new lion symbol. GEOFF FORESTER

  • The Merrimack Valley Pride symbol inside the gymnasium. GEOFF FORESTER

Monitor columnist
Published: 12/7/2019 9:08:15 PM

Those offended by the Native American images on the Merrimack Valley High School gym floor will be thrilled with recent input from Superintendent Mark MacLean.

He strongly hinted that the images of an individual shown in full headdress along both baselines are there on borrowed time, soon to be removed due to concerns that they turn an entire population into caricatures.

But wait. Listen to the school board chair, Seelye Longnecker, and a different picture emerges, adding confusion to an issue that has been long on discussions but short on solutions.

Here’s MacLean’s recent email: “The conversation in 2016 relative to the gym floor was always that the images would be removed when the floor was next refinished. It was never intended as a full-time measure. That will be reaffirmed on Monday.”

MacLean said the impending change had nothing to do with recent public pressure. He said it was in the cards all along.

Great. If true, that would placate people like Carisa Corrow, who taught English at Merrimack Valley for 12 years, and whose three children attend school in the district. Kathleen Blake, chair of the New Hampshire Commission on Native American Affairs, will be happy to hear this news as well.

And now, listen to Longnecker, who also contacted me via email. “I can confirm that the future of the Native American images on the gym floor will be discussed at Monday’s meeting. I do not know what decision the board will make.”

And there you have it. It will be discussed, but what happens next is anyone’s best guess.

That’s the backdrop to Monday’s school board meeting. For one reason or another, Merrimack Valley officials can’t clearly explain the future of this gym court and these two images, which have caused a community stir.

What we know is this: The same Native American images on the gym floor were placed on banners outside the school recently to celebrate its 50th anniversary and honor students who were voted into the school’s Hall of Fame.

MacLean said those banners would be removed once this nostalgic period of time had passed and new ones were delivered, and he kept his word. The controversial images are gone, leaving just a lion on those light poles, 15 years after the school’s name was changed from Indians to the Pride.

But offensive images are offensive images, no matter where they’re posted, and, for some, nothing but a final exit of the man formerly known as Chief Yahoo will suffice.

“All images need to be removed from display in common areas that students, guests and community members access for learning, meeting and events,” Corrow, one of the main backers of Native Americans during this recent buzz, said in an email. “This includes any old ones that may have been hidden in the background and not so prominently displayed.”

Blake had this to say: “The research is clear. The use of ‘Indian’ sports mascots is a form of racial discrimination and perpetuates negative stereotypes of our indigenous citizens.”

Blake made sure to add in her email that she appreciates the effort school officials have made to clear the air. MacLean and his people are trying to convince critics that the school district is sensitive to others’ feelings.

How? By meeting, more than once, with Blake’s Native American committee. MacLean and Longnecker attended those meetings, along with Merrimack Valley High School Principal David Miller, Native American committee member Denise Pouliot, and her husband, Paul Pouliot of the Cowasuck Band of the Penacook-Abenaki People.

The idea that surfaced was to somehow incorporate Native American culture and customs into the school district’s central curriculum.

“These meetings have been very enlightening,” MacLean said in one of his many emails, “and we’re hopeful that a true ongoing connection will be a byproduct of these encounters.”

He continued: “Some Native American imagery has been visible at MVHS for many decades. The current administration has made efforts to lend context to the Native American images, and most importantly to create educational opportunities.”

Wrote Blake, “We engaged in conversations that were informative, educational and enlightening to all parties. We are hopeful that a meaningful partnership will be forged with the school district so that all students, including our indigenous children, may feel welcome and respected.”

Somewhere, officials on both sides hope, a balance can be found, a compromise that will somehow use this stereotypical image as a learning tool, while simultaneously celebrating the rich history of Native Americans.

Can both coexist to form a narrative that is acceptable to all involved? And, more to the point, are those two images on the gym floor going to be voted out of office by the school board? If so, MacLean wrote that the board “may determine a date for (refinishing) as a result of Monday’s conversation. All gym floors in the district are annually re-screened.”

Monday’s meeting starts at 7:15 p.m. It’s time to put this issue to bed. One way or another.

“The criticism in the air seems to be indicative of the fact that this conversation has yet to be effectively broached at the community level,” MacLean wrote. “We’re hopeful that Monday will bring some positive closure to that.”

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