Why is the old image at Merrimack Valley new again?

  • Merrimack Valley’s old and new logos sit side-by-side on banners hanging outside the high school. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

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

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

Monitor columnist
Published: 11/18/2019 5:56:23 PM

Some in Penacook thought the image of a Native American to signify courage was old news from an insensitive culture.

So why in the world is it back on the Merrimack Valley High School campus?

The logo was officially dropped 15 years ago, replaced by a lion, changing Merrimack Valley High School’s nickname from Indians to Pride. Recently, though, the old symbol – on light poles in the parking lot – was re-introduced as a way to honor athletes from decades ago recently inducted into the school’s Hall of Fame.

It was incorporated into the 50th​​​​-​anniversary celebration, labeled as a slice of nostalgia for those who were students before the change was made.

Bad idea, critics say. Offensive is offensive, then, now, always. That’s why the change was made in the first place. Why is this controversial figure that represents the ongoing issue of cultural disrespect to Native Americans no longer considered disrespectful in Penacook?

Former teacher CarisaCorrow, whose three children are in the MV School District, wants to know.

“It’s about treating human beings like human beings, not about political correctness, and that never changes,” Corrow told me. “It’s about not treating them like a stereotype and a caricature.”

The wooden poles in the MV parking lot have a rectangular banner on each side. To the right it says ‘The Valley.’ On the left side of the pole, a roaring lion looks one way and an indigenous person the other way, separated by a crest.

They’re not easily noticeable. Corrow – who left the school in 2016 after 12 years teaching English and serving as the senior project coordinator – believes the school district was trying to pull a fast one by incorporating the old with the new in a clandestine manner.

She also thinks the whole anniversary thing was merely a smokescreen to bring back what the school once had and never wanted to lose in the first place.

“It’s not just celebrating 50 years,” Corrow said, adding it’s “being reintroduced to the community.”

Dan Dolphonse agrees. He taught art at the school for 23 years, retiring in 2009, and he played a pivotal role in the decision to replace the school’s logo in 2005. He’s not buying this 50th-​anniversary ​​​​​​jazz any more than Corrow. He saw the banners on Facebook, posted by a student who deemed them improper.

“Mr. Dolphonse, look what they’re doing again,” the student said, according to Dolphonse.

“At first, Yahoo was there,” Dolphonse said, referring to the name of the initial mascot. “And I don’t know why that sensitivity was lost. Maybe it was an urge to recapture the past, and maybe this is a big leap, but it might have a lot to do with the political climate. We learned this sort of image is not acceptable, and all of a sudden it’s acceptable again.”

Trapped in the middle of this is Mark MacLean, the Merrimack Valley School District’s superintendent. He told me via email that this was by no means a Trojan Horse moving onto campus under the cover of darkness, banners ready to be hoisted while the village slept.

MacLean said a task force of community alumni and high school personnel had worked for a few years to establish the right setting for the school’s new hall of fame. The first class was inducted last year, the next one a few weeks ago.

No disrespect intended.

“A logo to commemorate athletes past and present was created,” MacLean wrote. “The intent of this logo was to appropriately recognize former MVHS athletes while demonstrating that we are now the ‘Pride.’ As such, the logo includes both the Native American image from the original school seal as well as the current lion image used to display our pride.”

As MacLean and others apparently saw it, the goal was to find a middle ground, an area that could satisfy old-school individuals who remember the pre-politically correct era, when a Native American symbol in full headdress meant bravery, not bigotry.

Add the Pride symbol on the other side of the banner and, they believed, a balance had been struck between the old and the new, giving athletes from yesteryear a taste of nostalgia, while ushering in the new era of tolerance.

“As a school community we are proud of many things, to include our past,” MacLean said in his email. “With this in mind, the imagery that you see today seeks to preserve a historical connection to those alumni who graduated from Merrimack High School between 1967 and 2002, while paying homage to the local tribal history of the Pennacook (Penakuk) and Abenaki (Alnobak).”

To bolster his case of respect toward everyone, MacLean said in his email that these new banners are temporary.

“The plan was to display these banners during the (Hall of Fame) month and then to replace them,” MacLean wrote. “The replacement banners have been on-order for some time. We anticipate delivery very soon.”

He also said the school district is working directly with the Mt. Kearsarge Indian Museum. “We’re cultivating a true connection,” MacLean said, “and currently in the process of finalizing various plans to collaborate with the museum.”

Which begs a bottom-line question: Can you mix a Native American profile in full headdress with a more innocuous symbol like a lion and remain respectful? Can you cite history as a reason to keep a symbol alive, much like what the south argued recently to keep its Civil War statues displayed?

And what about the Native American symbols that never left the school? The one on the championship banners high on the MV gym walls and on the baseline of the basketball court?

Corrow saw them, as did hundreds of other parents and students, and said nothing.

“I should have said something publicly,” she said. “I’m a little ashamed I did not say something then.”

Once the school took the action of putting the banners up, it was time to speak, she said.

She said she’s been told by a member of her graduating class that “you’re overreacting.”

To prove she’s not alone, Corrow started a petition to have the banners removed, which received more than 60 signatures as of last week.

She’ll bring that petition to the next school board meeting to illustrate to school officials those parking lot banners were not a good idea, while also saying it’s time to address the remaining images inside the gym.

“I’m hoping that would deliver a message,” she said, “that this is not appropriate.”

Two schools of thought will undoubtedly emerge. They always do.

“The Merrimack Valley School District does not promote racism, stereotypes, or cultural insensitivity,” MacLean wrote.

“We need to stop practicing racial bullying,” Corrow said. “I don’t want my children to grow up in a racist society.”

That meeting is Dec. 9 at 7:15 p.m.  




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