Tomahawk debate continues: School mascot appropriation or pride?
April 4, 2018
John Wilson is 75 years old, and a 1961 graduate of Algonquin Regional High School. He skims through his senior yearbook, the aged-white cover decorated with a profile of a Native American man in a feathered headdress. He flips to a random page and points to a girl’s photo.
“There’s my girlfriend,” he smiled.
After perusing through photos of his graduating class of 111 students, Wilson stumbles upon himself, a handsome, young man with a long list of activities and a soft smile.
Before the school opened in 1959, Wilson was selected to be on a student committee as a representative from the former Peters High School in Southborough. The committee chose the mascot, shaping the Algonquin identity students know today.
Since Wilson walked through the Algonquin hallways as a tomahawk for the first time, the school has more than doubled its enrollment and expanded the building. However, two things have remained untouched: the name, Algonquin, and the mascot, the tomahawk.
History of Algonquin
The Harbinger surveyed 204 students from March 22 to March 28 via Google Forms, and the results revealed a common misconception that the Algonquin people lived and occupied land in the New England area.
“[‘Algonquin’ was chosen] because our school is in New England and a large Native American tribe that was in this area was the Algonquin,” one survey respondee wrote.
The 2007 edition of the New Encyclopedia Britannica describes Algonquin as “any of a number of scattered Algonquian-speaking bands and tribes living in dense forest regions on either side of the upper Ottawa River in Canada.”
According to the New Encyclopedia Britannica, there is a difference between the Algonquin tribe and the Algonquian language group. The term Algonquian refers to a group of languages spoken by many distinct Native American tribes throughout North America. The Algonquin tribe lived and remained only in regions of Canada, but is under the umbrella of the Algonquian language family.
According to Wilson, the school committee selected Algonquin as the name of the new regionalized high school. The student committee, which Wilson was a part of, was tasked with choosing the school colors, mascot and publication names.
According to Wilson, the school committee’s goal was to honor “some of the heritage of the land around here.” The student committee came to a consensus about the mascot based on the name already chosen for the school.
“I can’t remember what other names were brought up, but there were other names, but someone came up with the tomahawks,” Wilson said. “We said, ‘Ok, that kind of goes along with the theme that’s been set.’”
A tomahawk is a tool used by North American Natives, often decorated with feathers. It was used in ceremonies as well as war.
Wilson recalled the early days of ARHS, when cheerleaders would wear headbands with feathers tucked in and students would “lead the chants in a headdress.”
The decision to have a Native American school theme followed suit with many neighboring communities naming high schools and creating mascots after Native American tribes around the same time period.
According to the New England Mascot Coalition, 41 schools in Massachusetts use Native American mascots, nicknames or logos. The Nashoba Regional High School chieftains, Nipmuc Regional High School warriors and Grafton High School Indians show their school pride through Native American culture.
Principal Dr. Sara Pragluski Walsh has a plaque displaying a tomahawk in her office. According to Walsh, the plaque was given to the school by an “authentic Algonquin chief.”
“It was presented as a sign of respect and how we respect the Algonquin Indians,” Walsh said.
Former principal Tom Mead believes the plaque was gifted about 15 years ago, but is unsure of its origin.
Algonquin’s Guide to Athletics’ “Tomahawk Dedication” states, “We will strive to promote the positive aspects of our heritage and deter, in any way, representation of the tomahawk that would be demeaning to Native American cultures.”
When contemplating whether or not the school name and mascot could be seen as offensive, Wilson believes it depends on the person.
“Certainly people have gotten used to it,” Wilson said. “But, no one has the right to not be offended.”
According to the Harbinger survey, 50 percent of students think that the school name could be seen as racist, and 53 percent feel that the mascot could be seen as racist. Despite this, 75 percent of students believe that neither the name nor the mascot should be changed.
Walsh believes that the school name and mascot are acceptable in today’s society. According to Walsh, students understand how to be respectful as Algonquin tomahawks.
“[The students] have continued to honor what it means to be an Algonquin Indian and what the tomahawk means to be a productive tribe, and to continue a positive reflection,” Walsh said.
Junior Joe Gordon says he has been exposed to little to no information about the Algonquin tribe or the importance of the tomahawk.
“[The tomahawk’s] deep roots in Native American culture is something that I think a lot of Algonquin students don’t understand,” Gordon said. “I just haven’t had the opportunity to really learn about that.”
Senior Nathan Anderson believes that the school should “absolutely” keep the name and mascot the same, citing that the tomahawk is “an inanimate object.”
“It would be like changing a school mascot that is a sword or something like that…” Anderson said. “[Algonquin tomahawks] is not meant to be anything more than just a name we can go by and put on the front of a jersey.”
Sophomore Nate DeGregorio believes that the name and mascot represent the spirit of the students in the building.
“I just don’t really see a point to changing it because it really fits the school,” DeGregorio said. “We all have t-hawk pride, and I think we are all very happy with the name.”
English teacher Emily Philbin believes tradition is not enough to defend the school name and mascot.
“People often say, ‘It’s been like this for so long’ which is kind of a funny thing to think about because if we think of how society has progressed in general, to say ‘no, this is how it’s always been.’ Well, I’ve got lots of things that have ‘always been,’” Philbin said.
Many students and faculty believe that a problematic aspect of “t-hawk pride” is when students don headdresses at school events.
Philbin, who teaches an elective called Silenced Voices to expose students to diverse authors, has done significant research on Native Americans to share with her classes.
“The headdress is akin to a medal of honor…” Philbin said. “We are appropriating if we’re taking headdresses and making them into costumes.”
Philbin recalled a discussion she had with students who wore headdresses.
“I had a conversation a couple of years ago with students who would wear the headdresses…and those students, after I talked to them, stopped wearing the headdresses,” Philbin said. “They were actually embarrassed.”
Interim athletic director Fran Whitten has asked students to remove garments, such as headdresses, that could be seen as offensive at school-sponsored events.
“I have no issue whatsoever with us being called the tomahawks nor with our logo or any of that…” Whitten said. “I’m not in favor of the headdresses and the war paint.”
“It can seem harmless to a lot of people,” Gordon said. “At football games, you see people in headdresses. These are important parts of Native American culture, and students at Algonquin don’t know to respect that.”
Impact & Action
According to a research report by Native American psychologist, Michael A. Friedman, PhD, called, “The Harmful Psychological Effects of the Washington Football Mascot,” he states that even mascots and imagery made to represent Native Americans in a “positive” or “neutral” light may be detrimental to the well-being of Native Americans.
Friedman’s research also discusses that “Native American people report the highest level of psychological distress of any other group in the nation, due in part from being the target of ongoing prejudice and discrimination.”
The National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) has taken a stance on the issue of Native American mascots and logos used by non-Natives.
“The intolerance and harm promoted by these ‘Indian’ sports mascots, logos, or symbols have very real consequences for Native people,” a statement on the NCAI website reads. “Specifically, rather than honoring Native peoples, these caricatures and stereotypes are harmful, perpetuate negative stereotypes…and contribute to a disregard for the personhood of Native peoples.”
According to Anderson, he would consider a Native American’s opinion if someone had a problem with the school name or mascot.
“If [Native Americans] can make a good case as to why it offended a large group of them for some reason, [I would consider changing it],” Anderson said.
Senior Jessica Yin believes that especially with recent student activism surrounding gun control, students must orchestrate change in the school community.
“I think student-led change is the only way change can really happen at this school,” Yin said. “The administration will only act on changing policy…[Changing the name and mascot] doesn’t seem to be on the administration’s radar.”
Philbin believes that in order to progress as a community, everyone must respect and protect everyone else’s cultures.
“If a majority culture isn’t going to stand up for a minority culture, then we can’t [progress as a society],” Philbin said.
Tomahawk not offensive, brings pride to Algonquin tribe
Over the past few years, several sports teams such as the Washington Redskins have been ridiculed for having racist or upsetting images for their team logo. I do not believe that these teams deserve the heat that they get. These teams and organizations celebrate their mascots, not insult them. Algonquin Regional High School is the perfect example.
We are a very prideful school, with the utmost respect for our maroon and gold colors. We don’t insult the Algonquin Native American tribe that our school resembles, or the tomahawks that represent us as a mascot. Many view it as a form of honor to be a tomahawk, and go to this school. I have not encountered anyone insulted by the Native American origins of our school. It is a symbol of pride, unity and excitement for every student and faculty member that attends Algonquin.
During football season, Algonquin football games are one of the must-go events of the weekend. Everyone looks forward to cheering on the team and screaming, “Let’s go T-hawks!” We look forward to dressing up in whatever the theme is each game to show our pride and unity as a school. Being a tomahawk brings unity to everyone rivaling against other schools in competition between anything. Whether it be sports, DECA or anything in between, it definitely feels good to be the school that all other towns are jealous of. Our mascot and name positively celebrated their tribe.
I am a senior at Algonquin, and I wouldn’t want to go to school anywhere else after experiencing the life of a tomahawk these past four years. I have difficulty placing anything offensive around our mascot. We are not alone in being represented by Native American tribes. Several other local schools such as Wachusett, Nashoba and Tahanto are represented by Native American symbols. All of these schools take pride in their mascots, and none of them insult what represents them. That is why people should find no offense towards our school name and mascot. They are made to represent, promote pride and celebrate, not hate.
Tomahawk exemplifies cultural appropriation, disrespects culture
At this moment in history’s arch there is no room for debate. Overcompensation is worth it. As a nation we have so deeply wronged Native Americans. I do not just mean the glorification of Christopher Columbus or the first Thanksgiving (though the first scars are always the most painful); I mean the blatant lack of attention or representation that manifests itself in the astronomical suicide, addiction and sexual assault rates on reservations. Our debt is so great, we must return all that we have stolen, starting with their name.
If you are going to claim the argument pride and honor, by all means, but as the saying goes: “walk the walk, do not just talk the talk.” Capitalizing off of history is not honor. The honoring of Natives would be a massively progressive stride. Push for Native representation in our school sanctioned literature, protest such disregards as the Dakota Access Pipeline, lobby for the representation of reservation officials in state and federal politics and most importantly inform yourself. Enroll in Silenced Voices. Know why the tomahawk represents strength. Know how long it would have taken you to earn each feather on your headdress. Know the sanctity of chants. It would be a ton of work, but if you want honor and you have pride, it would be worth it.
Our fear of change has grown bigger than our need for progress, and that is detrimental to a society. The answer is simple here. It is a lesson we learned in childhood: if you take something, give it back. A change in mascot or name is not jurassic. If your passion for the Northborough-Southborough school community is that deep, a simple and essential history correction should not be earth shattering. You must learn and adapt to satisfy the needs of society: the Native Americans did.