WATERTOWN — A second virtual town hall meeting on the future of the native American mascot for Watertown High School, held January 5, produced discussion both for and against the proposal to remove the mascot.
The majority of those speaking were in favor of removing the native American mascot and the “Indians” name, but several did speak in favor of retaining the mascot.
The number of people in the virtual meeting topped out into the 90’s, with 14 people choosing to speak. Several speakers called on the Board of Education to conduct a town-wide referendum on the issue before making a decision, saying the matter should be decided by a majority of voters and not just a handful of voices, some of whom were not even current Watertown residents. Although nearly everyone in this meeting identified themselves as students, parents, or community members, the previous meeting did include “out-of-towners” representing native American groups or human rights organizations.
The first speaker, Kat Campagna, began her three minute appeal by noting she is a 2008 graduate of Watertown High School who currently lives in Utah and works in human resources. She said part of her job is seeking out candidates for her clients who are diverse and who have “strong anti-racist values.”
She said she is very selective in which students she represents and seeing a student from a school with a “racist” mascot gives her pause. Pride in a native American mascot would count against the candidate, she said, unless such a candidate could prove he or she has not been indoctrinated into a similarly racist attitude.
Many of those who spoke out in favor of removing the mascot were students or recent graduates, including Ellie Miske, who described the original effort to bring the board’s attention to the issues surrounding a native American mascot. She also referenced information presented in writing and orally at the previous meeting referring to potential psychological harm that may be done to children by use of a native American mascot. She said there was widespread support for making the change.
Colleen Murphy, who spoke in favor of retiring the mascot, explained a group of alumni had developed a website, https://www.whsmascot.com/, to make their message of concern readily available. The website includes educational resources as well as links to news articles on national sports franchises who have rejected or are considering rejecting the use of a native American mascot.
Bruce Cianciolo, who said he was a resident of town for more than 50 years and a 1978 graduate of Watertown High School, was the first to call for a town-wide vote. He said he did not want the mascot changed and that original town residents had purchased the land for Watertown from the local natives and not stolen it. He continued that it disturbs him to think that some might wish to strip the community of its heritage.
He suggested that instead the town should make a point of teaching native American history to its students, in much the same way the state has recently declared that all school districts must teach a course in high school about the history and contributions of diverse groups.
Georgann Palombo, who described herself as having a native American mother from whom she learned native American culture, spoke about visiting relatives in Maine and learning her culture when she was a child.
She said she was in favor of keeping the mascot as a source of pride and tradition. Not only was her son a junior at Watertown High School this year, but she also said she had coached softball and cheerleading. At no time had she ever seen anything shameful related to the use of the mascot. She finished her time speaking by cheering, “Go Indians!”
David Santangeli, who said he had been a resident for 25 years and had four kids, said the town had not used the name Indians for several years now and instead referred to itself as the “W’s.” He suggested it was time to move forward from the past to a new mascot.
David Chouinard said nostalgia was a wonderful thing but he urged others to consider what message the town was sending by using a native American mascot. “As a town, what are we saying?” he asked.
The last speaker of the evening was Kate Overton, who described herself as a proud member of a Great Plains Indian tribe. “We are not your mascot,” she said, explaining that the depiction of the mascot showed a headdress of her tribe, an item that was steeped in tradition and could only be worn by those who earned the right to do so. She noted that many mascots are animals and to lump a native American in the same category as animals was an insult. Those who choose to utilize such depictions “side with the oppressor,” she concluded.
The virtual town hall was held as part of the ongoing discussions on the future of the high school’s mascot. That discussion began in August with a request to consider “retiring” the mascot. In September, the Board of Education established a Watertown Public Schools Mascot Committee, which was tasked with engaging the community in a respectful dialogue about the issue. The committee, consisting of Board of Education members, community members, parents, Watertown High School students, staff members, and administrators, sought out experts in the field, solicited public comment, and conducted a previous virtual town hall meeting in November.