CHESTER, Vt. — The Green Mountain Unified School District board voted 7-2 on Thursday to eliminate the Green Mountain Union High School mascot, specifically the Indian head iconography, but still retain the name “Chieftains” for their sports teams.
The two “no” votes were both Cavendish representatives.
A week earlier, a number of Green Mountain Union High School alumni, parents, students, and community members expressed their opinions to the Green Mountain Unified School District Board, which were largely in favor of dropping the Chieftain name and logo.
The discussion was held to assess whether the time had come to replace the Chieftains name and Indian head logo as the mascot for the school. The issue had been brought up to the board in last year by students and alumni and comes on the heels of other sports mascots, both in area schools and in professional sports leagues across the country, that have retired Native American iconography and nomenclature, termed as culturally insensitive and racist.
The GMUSD board had received “many communications” from community members in addition to comments expressed at the Oct. 14 meeting.
Board Chairman Joe Fromberger opened the discussion reminding participants that this was not a board meeting, but rather a forum to hear what communities think of the idea.
Board Vice Chair Deb Brown, speaking as a member of the public, offered an opening comment by floating out a compromise to rebrand the Chieftain name but drop the Indian head icon. She noted that it was imagery that was harmful, not the word, which represents “honor, respect and integrity.”
Amber Wilson, GMUSD recording secretary and a descendant of the Abenaki, also said that the Chieftains title should be honored and revered.
A handful of other respondents were also in this camp including Sarah Yake, who said she had talked with a member of the Native American Guardian Association who said the Green Mountain icon was “absolutely beautiful artwork that is to be celebrated.”
Nicholas Willis of the Native American Guardian Association said that Chieftains was a generic term and that Native Americans do support these images and associations. Green Mountain alumni Mindy Munroe said that as a woman who’s married to a Scotsman, the term Chieftain means the leader of a clan and that the term is not just about Native Americans.
Overwhelmingly, however, other participants weighed in against both the name and logo by a margin of 2-1.
Two GMUHS students spoke at the forum, and both were against the continuation of the name and the mascot. Junior Greta Bernier said that chanting “Go Chieftains” feels wrong, saying she wants a mascot that feels inclusive to everyone and that its “time to change the mascot.”
Student Luna Burkland said that the mascot was a stereotype and was not a good representation of the school. She also noted that many indigenous people were protesting mascots across the county that were similar to theirs, and asked, “Why is it any different for us?”
GMUSD board member Abe Gross, speaking as a member of the public, also said that the current logo and indigenous association and objectification was a challenge. He said that it does not seem that the best thing to do is ignore it. “What will be the legacy of Green Mountain into the future?” he asked.
Green Mountain parent Deborah Velto spoke of being visited by her Navajo friend and being embarrassed and shameful of all the Chieftain imagery. She said that the alumni were holding onto an outdated tradition and were contributing to an “aggressive climate” shaming students and other community members for wanting a change.
Cavendish resident Sarah Stowell agreed that the imagery still seen at the school is problematic. “Holding onto the past for the sake of the past seems like it’s a… futility,” she said.
Chester community member Cheryl Joy Lipton said that a rebrand was not possible since the word Chieftains was so closely tied to Native American imagery. She compared the use of the swastika, which was originally a Celtic symbol, but could now only be associated with its Nazi Germany association. Cavendish resident Jen Leak also agreed it was not possible to rebrand and that reducing people to an image based on a person’s race was dehumanizing.
Carol McRanahan, commissioner of Native American Affairs and an elder and member of Abenaki community, said the symbol is disrespectful to her. She noted that Abenaki never wore a headdress. “The misconception that the Indian chieftain is honoring us is off the mark,” she said.
She also pointed out that the word “Chieftains” was a word termed by the colonizers and was not a part of the Abenaki culture. She also pointed out that Green Mountain was the last school in Vermont that’s holding onto this type of mascot.
Other comments included the need to upgrade the logo much like the building needs upgrading; that the logo was a divisive issue that would continue to cause problems; and the need to adopt symbolism that does no harm.