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“A lack of common sense”

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Rep. Vincent says bill to ban Native American mascots at Massachusetts schools – like the Saugus High School Sachem – is misguided

State Rep. RoseLee Vincent said she believes Saugus residents won’t have to worry about renaming their beloved Sachem sport teams. “I don’t believe the legislation has any legs,” Vincent, a Revere Democrat who represents part of Saugus (Precincts 3 and 10), said of proposed legislation that would prohibit Massachusetts schools from using Native American mascots.

“I would be opposed to that bill. I received quite a few emails from Saugus residents who aren’t happy about it,” she said.

“If it came to the House floor, I don’t believe it would pass. I knew that when I saw it. Common sense should prevail. Unfortunately, a lot of people have lost common sense,” she said.

One of Massachusetts’ most powerful politicians also stands in the way of the proposed statewide ban against Native American mascots. The legislation (S 291), which was the subject of a public hearing in Boston this week before the Legislature’s Education Committee, drew criticism from state Senate President Stanley Rosenberg.

“I think this is something the cities and towns should decide for themselves,” the Democrat told WGBH Radio this week.

“I don’t think the state needs to regulate it. We regulate enough things; it should be left up to the communities.”

 

Saugus should be exempt from proposal

In an interview with The Saugus Advocate yesterday, Vincent also considered the matter a home rule issue that didn’t need state government involved. And even under the unlikely circumstances that the legislation did become law, Vincent said Saugus should be exempt. “In Saugus’ case, I believe it’s paying tribute to the town’s rich Native American history … I never felt – during my years in representing Saugus – that it was anything but a tribute by a town that’s deep into its history,” she said.

“I don’t understand what the big deal is unless it’s an offensive term. And Saugus, certainly, is just the opposite – a matter of pride. I feel sometimes we try way too hard to be politically correct,” she said.

Wendy L. Reed, clerk of the Saugus Board of Selectmen, fiercely defends Saugus High and the town’s link to the Sachems as an important part of its heritage. “You have to know we respect our Sachem. He is not a cartoon character,” said Reed, who served a dozen a years on the Saugus School Committee (1997 to 2001 and 2005 to 2013).

“I had three boys go through the Saugus Schools, and they never had anything but respect for the Sachem. It was part of the curriculum they were exposed to at every grade level,” she said.

The town seal portrays the Sachem of Saugus – Sagamore James, also known as Montowampate, the chief or leader of his people in the Saugus area.

“Saugus has deep Native American roots and was ruled by a sachem, or Native American king. Saugus is the Native American name for ‘great’ or ‘extended,’” according to a recent brochure published by the Saugus Historical Commission on the Round Hill project.

The brochure continues, “First settled by English colonists in 1629, the area once included Lynn, Lynnfield, Nahant, Reading, Swampscott, and Wakefield.

“A number of Native American sites are recorded in the area, dating from all known phases of human occupation over the past 13,000 years. Native Americans used stone from local sources, including the ledge of jasper at the foot of Round Hill, for tools which served them in their daily lives.”

“It’s our heritage”

The proposed ban, if applied to Saugus, would affect local government and community buildings in addition to the Sachem mascot.

“It’s our heritage,” said Reed. “He was raised here. He’s on our town seal and our street signs and all over documents. He helped the founders here develop Saugus.”

When Saugus residents talk about Sachem pride, it’s intended as a compliment – showing virtues of a leader or chief, according to Reed, who believes the legislation doesn’t apply to the town. “I believe what they’re targeting is disrespect to any culture, nationality or religion, she said, noting that it’s an issue that surfaces in the state Legislature about every seven years.

State Rep. Vincent said she’s also troubled by the statewide implications for Massachusetts, which uses Native Americans in the state symbol and on flags across the Commonwealth. “A lot of our Native American history – we have so many symbols. Would we have to remove the Native American symbol on our state seal?” Vincent said. “I would be opposed to that symbol being stripped of the Native American. Nor should we be removing a symbol in a community.”

State Rep. Donald Wong (R-Saugus) expressed his opposition to the legislation in a letter to the Education Committee and in discussions with several members of the panel after Tuesday’s hearings.

“We are honoring them,” Wong said in an interview yesterday. “We’re not taking them for granted and we are not using their name in vain … If you say ‘We don’t want the Sachem as the mascot,’ what would be the next thing? Would the next step be on the state level, which would be our state emblem? How far would this go?” Wong said.

“We’re using the Sachem to honor the tribe that lived in Saugus. It’s like anything else, we have named rotaries and bridges after veterans. So this shouldn’t be any different,” he said.

“You have casinos that name themselves Mohegan Sun. They’re not using it for pride. So why are they allowed to use it and we would not be?”

Saugus one of 40 “mascot” communities

Around 40 Massachusetts schools use Native American imagery and themes for their mascots and logos, according to a parent seeking to ban the practice.

Lisa Thomas, one of two Tewksbury residents who petitioned State Sen. Barbara L’Italien to file legislation that would impose the ban, told the Joint Committee on Education on Tuesday that she grew concerned the town’s Redmen mascot would teach her children that “stereotypes and caricatures were OK.”

Jason Packineau, an enrolled citizen of the Three Affiliated Tribes of North Dakota and community coordinator at the Harvard University Native American Program, discussed what he described as the impact of such mascots on his own life. The Lincoln resident said people call him “chief” or “savage,” and strangers ask to touch his long hair, which he wore in braids Tuesday.

On Tuesday the Gill-Montague Regional School Committee decided to retire its Native American mascot and Indians name for its sporting teams. “Native people want to control their identity,” he said, asking the committee to remember that the mascots were not created by Native Americans.

While bill (S 291) supporters said the portrayal of Native Americans as mascots can be harmful and disrespectful to people they are intended to represent, opponents of the ban said the mascots honor historical relationships with Native American tribes and have become sources of town pride over the years.

“The town has an affinity and a great relationship with this name,” said Rep. Jim Miceli, who represents Tewksbury, citing a well-known statue in the town “of an Indian brave overlooking the community,” and the recent opening of a bowling alley and recreation complex named after the Wamesit village.

“I’ve lived in Billerica essentially all my life,” Rep. Marc Lombardo wrote. “Never in over three decades have I ever witnessed the name ‘Billerica Indians’ used and received by residents in anyway other than with pride and joy.”

A priority in Tewksbury

The Massachusetts Teachers Association supports the bill, and the union’s Shauna Manning said mascots do not represent the “rich and complex history” of Native American people and do not acknowledge a “long history of genocide from the United States toward Native Americans.” “We feel that Native American mascots are demeaning and perpetuate a myth that Native Americans are relics of the past who no longer exist,” she said.

Residents of Amesbury, Melrose and Winchester testified in support of the bill, saying they disagreed with their towns’ use of Native American mascots.

Miceli, a Wilmington Democrat, told the committee the issue is a priority in Tewksbury, where the School Committee in March 2016 voted 4-1 to keep its mascot after hearing support from residents. “I would love to see this bill killed, and I’m looking around and I think that’s a possibility,” Miceli said.

Billerica Republican Rep. Lombardo changed his Twitter profile picture on Tuesday to the Billerica Memorial High School Indians logo and described the bill in written testimony as “political correctness run amok.”

The State House News Service contributed to this report

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