Ponaganset’s ‘Chieftains’ mascot at the center of debate between tribe, school committee

Northwest

GLOCESTER, R.I. (WPRI) — Ponaganset High School’s mascot, the Chieftains, is something a local tribe that originally inhabited northwestern Rhode Island wants to see changed.

Members of the Nipmuc Tribe asked the R.I. Commission on Prejudice and Bias to mediate discussions with the Foster-Glocester School Committee, according to Joe Reddish, the commission’s chairman.

Reddish doesn’t believe the mascot was originally chosen out of a derogatory reason, but “now that the history is available, I think it’s important to understand the sensitivities.”

The school district, Reddish and tribal members discussed Ponaganset’s mascot at Wednesday’s school committee meeting.

Reddish was quick to criticize the school committee for not discussing the issues surrounding the mascot prior to motioning for voters in both towns to decide its fate in the 2022 election.

“If it’s offensive, there should be a discussion about it,” Reddish told the school committee. “You’re addressing this particular situation without even understanding the concerns of the Nipmuc Tribe.”

Co-Chair of the Foster-Glocester School Committee Shelley Pezza said several times during the meeting that she believes this is not the place to discuss the school’s mascot.

“I don’t want this to be in the school committee’s hands,” Pezza said.

A letter sent to the school district by the commission in January 2021 explains this is an opportunity to remove inaccurate representations of marginalized groups.

“In the court of public opinion, in and beyond your community, maintaining your mascot would continue to demonstrate that Ponaganset does not practice cultural competency in this area,” the letter reads.

In response to some on social media claiming the mascot honors the tribe, Lorén Spears, executive director of the Tomaquag Indigenous Museum and educator on Rhode Island’s indigenous peoples’ history, said that’s not the case.

“The dehumanizing and caricature representation of indigenous people does not represent tribal nations or represent individual tribal people,” Spears said.

During Wednesday’s meeting, Chief Red Spirit from the Nipmuc Tribe said he wants to see the logo removed, but it appears the committee has already made up its mind.

“It frazzles me to try and understand why you would think that it wasn’t racist to have kids running around with Indian head dresses on their uniforms,” he said.

Foster-Glocester Regional School District Superintendent, Dr. Michael Barnes, did not respond to 12 News’ request for comment.

But last year, Barnes told 12 News the district intended to have the conversation about the school’s mascot. It’s unclear if those conversations happened prior to Wednesday’s school committee meeting.

School committee member Kathleen Swanson said in an email to 12 News they look forward to opening the door of communication between the community, the commission and the tribe.

Central Falls High School has also recently taken steps to change their mascot, which also depicts a Native American.

Superintendent Dr. Stephanie Downey Toledo said they started changing the imagery of their “Warriors” mascot earlier this year.

This discussion locally comes after several national sports teams, including the Washington Redskins, agreed to change their name earlier this year.

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