Stop playing name game

Saugus High School could be in need of a new mascot.


Native American logos are nothing new to me. From the time I was old enough to know what a baseball was, I knew who the Cleveland Indians were, and thought nothing of it when I started following football and started hearing about the Washington Redskins.

I didn’t know until much, much later, that a Brave was a Native American, as was a Chief and a Blackhawk and many others.

I took it for granted that the Sioux had a propensity for fighting, and that was why the North Dakota hockey mascot was a Fighting Sioux (though not anymore).

Of course, that also meant that the Irish were a contentious lot, that they drank to excess as a matter of cultural heritage, and there was nothing untoward about an American university with a French name calling its mascot the Fighting Irish.

I’m surprised the Irish haven’t lobbied to get that changed. After all, it’s not very complimentary to the Irish. At least the Boston Celtics do not attach anything pejorative to their nickname. The Leprechaun might offend some people, though not me. And despite my last name, I have plenty of Irish in my family.

Earlier this week, there was a hearing at the State House on whether public schools should be prohibited from using Native American mascots. This casts a pretty wide net around the state of Massachusetts, as just within the Boston area there are at least five schools that use them. One of them is Saugus.

There is nothing inherently evil or racist about the use of the word Sachem. A Sachem is described as a chief or an elder. It is a position of respect. If that were the only issue, I doubt people would have too many objections over the use of the word.

But that’s not the whole issue, is it? And therein lies the problem. From the Trail of Tears to Wounded Knee to many other incidents, our history with Native Americans is not a happy one. So it is reasonable that Native Americans now should have the final say on what they consider offensive. And it’s just as reasonable to expect us to accept that.

All you have to do is look around to see how slippery the slope is when you allow patronizing nicknames into the mainstream. Is there anything more offensive than the Tomahawk Chop — a cheer that began at Florida State (whose athletic teams still call themselves the Seminoles) and gained more fame and traction during the 1990s, when the Atlanta Braves became one of America’s great baseball teams?

How about the pounding of drums in Cleveland when the Indians are rallying? How about just the name Redskins? It’s bad enough to use the name, but it’s worse that it’s on a team that represents the nation’s capital.

All of the above represent stereotypes — few of them respectful — and relics of a time when there was serious enmity among early American settlers and various tribes. And when it gets to that point, when the slope becomes this slippery, it’s impossible to differentiate and to establish levels of disrespect.

This is happening all over the country with college teams. We’ve already discussed the aforementioned Fighting Sioux (now they’re the Fighting Hawks — at least until Audubon Society starts a movement). The University of Massachusetts used to be the Redmen. Now its teams are called Minutemen. It’s now the Red Storm, and not the Redmen, at St. John’s University in New York.

UMass Lowell used to be the Chiefs. Now it’s the Riverhawks.

This isn’t just limited to Native Americans. Wes Unseld and Elvin Hayes used to play for the Baltimore — then Washington — Bullets. Now they’re the Wizards. Life goes on.

I’m sure the town of Saugus’ pride in how it honors its Native American heritage is sincere and justified. I can’t see any rationale that suggests that the town in any way intended to insult or demean Native Americans by making the Sachem its mascot. That goes for Winchester, the Pentucket school district (both Sachems), Amesbury (Indians), Andover (Warriors) Braintree (Wamps), Masconomet (Chieftains) and so many others.

But it’s long past time to understand the point of view of the people for whom these teams are named. We’re always talking about how we can unite in this country rather than divide.

Understanding the Native American point of view on this issue would be one very big way.


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