The Rutland City Board of School Commissioners heard about why it might be time to retire its district’s mascot Tuesday night.
The Change the Rutland Mascot Committee made a case to the board that the Rutland Raider mascot and arrowhead imagery reinforced racist stereotypes of Indigenous people and should be changed.
Amanda Gokee, a graduate of Rutland High School class of 2010, began the presentation during the board’s regular meeting held on Zoom with a land acknowledgment in Ojibwe, her ancestral language.
“A land acknowledgement is one way to introduce the history and contemporary existence of indigenous peoples on their ancestral homelands,” said Gokee, an Indigenous woman whose tribal affiliation is the Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Chippewa.
In addition to changing the mascot, the group asked for several other considerations, including instating acknowledgements at all public meetings and events; developing an equity action plan that includes native and antiracist curriculum; and reevaluating the use of school resource officers in the district, who according to Gokee, are “shown to disproportionately discipline students of color.”
Gokee went on to describe Vermont’s role in erasing Indigenous culture and brutalizing its people.
“The eugenics movement in Vermont sought to exterminate Indigenous people because they were seen as an inferior race,” she said, pointing to locations such as Brandon Training School where Indigenous women were forcibly sterilized.
“Studies have shown the psychological harm these mascots cause by reinforcing the limited ways others see Native students and in turn, limiting the ways that we see ourselves,” she said.
In 2011, the American Psychological Association passed a resolution recommending the retirement of Indigenous mascots.
The resolution stated, in part, that “the continued use of American Indian mascots, symbols, images and personalities undermines the educational experiences of members of all communities — especially those who have had little or no contact with Indigenous peoples,” and “has a negative impact on other communities by allowing for the perpetuation of stereotypes and stigmatization of another cultural group.”
The next speaker, RHS junior Jenna Montgomery, detailed how the mascot is antithetical to inclusive culture the district professes to support.
“In my everyday life, I see that this mascot allows for a school climate of racism and disallows for presence of constructive dialogue regarding race due to the fact that everyone writes it off as the way it’s always been,” she said.
Andy Cassarino, a 2014 RHS alumnus and history teacher at Burr & Burton Academy in Manchester, next provided historical context to the origins and use of the Raider mascot.
Cassarino said he researched Rutland Herald archives from 1930-1960s, as well as past RHS yearbooks to trace the evolution of the mascot.
“When exploring the archives, it appears there is little to no historical evidence to support the claim that the mascot was selected to honor Indigenous people,” he said, explaining that based on his research, local sports writers used racist stereotypical language, like “scalp,” “redskin” and “squaw,” to make their stories more interesting.
He said he also found evidence that the Herald and school yearbooks used imagery and language to depict Indigenous people as violent, savages or “drunks.”
Among the images of newspaper clippings and yearbook art presented by Cassarino, was a pin from 1969 that read, “Redmen scalp the Mounties.”
Cassarino said removing the arrowhead imagery “isn’t enough,” explaining that the Native American headdress regalia appeared in his own 2014 senior yearbook — well after that imagery was retired.
The final presenter, Marisa Kiefaber, a 2010 alum and teacher at Rutland Town School, read a number of testimonials written by alumni and other individuals who supported the change.
Among them were former state health commissioner Dr. Harry Chen, who called racism a “public health issue.”
After the presentation, the public was invited to speak about the issue. Speakers were allotted 90 seconds each.
Aaron Epps said he is new to the Rutland community and was “taken aback” when he saw the arrowhead imagery at the high school.
“Quite frankly, it wasn’t a good first impression,” he said.
Caleb Dundas, a senior at RHS, was in favor of the change.
“At its most basic form, a mascot is meant to unify the student body. As a current student, I can tell you it most certainly has not.”
Of the 10 individuals who spoke, only one, city resident Joseph “Butch” Paul, opposed the change.
“I am against this. I can’t believe we’re even talking about it,” he said.
During his comments, Paul criticized RHS for raising a Black Lives Matter flag in 2019, calling BLM an organization that, “by its own admission, is structured to destroy the culture of this country.”
“I just find it fascinating that we live in a culture now (in which) everybody’s a victim,” he said, later adding that the effort to change the mascot was being led by “probably a small group of people who have their own agendas.”
“I’m not a racist. I’m not a bigot. I live a normal life,” he said.
The topic of problematic school mascots and its accompanying controversy is not new to Vermont.
In Brattleboro, an effort is currently underway to replace that high school’s Colonels nickname, which some have argued is modeled after a Southern plantation and slave owner. The mascot itself was retired in 2004, but name has remained. The school is currently evaluating the matter.
Earlier this year, Randolph Union High School removed a mural of its Galloping Ghost mascot after people decried its resemblance to a Ku Klux Klansman. The mascot has since been redesigned as a Grim Reaper on horseback.
In 2018, the debate to retire South Burlington School District’s Rebels mascot because of its racist connotations went all the way to the Vermont Supreme Court after the district decided not to put the matter to a district-wide vote. The court ruled in favor of the district.
In a statement released Aug. 28, the Vermont Principals Association condemned the use of mascots that “perpetuate divisive stereotypes and contribute to the ongoing marginalization, erasure and harm to BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Color) communities.”
“School mascots are often powerful symbols within a community,” it read. “We believe that mascots and all school symbols should support feelings of belonging and inclusivity for students and the wider community. … Any mascot, nickname, symbol or logo that has marginalizing, racist or exclusionary elements should be replaced to demonstrate what it means to be an inclusive, welcoming and strong community.”
While the ultimate fate of the Rutland Raiders in the hands of the School Board, some members of the Rutland City Board of Aldermen believe voters should have a say.
Indeed, the issue has spurred debate around the community in recent months. A pair of competing electronic petitions have been circulating on social media.
On Tuesday night, Alderman Thomas DePoy called for a referendum on removing the mascot to be placed on the March ballot.
“I believe the voters of the city of Rutland would like to vote on this,” DePoy said. “I don’t believe this is an issue that should be decided by the Board of School Commissioners or the Board of Aldermen or any other board.”
The Board voted 7-3 to send the matter to the General Committee for further discussion.
Any referendum vote would be strictly advisory and non-binding.
School Board Chairwoman Alison Notte said Wednesday that it was “a little disheartening” that the Board of Aldermen didn’t reach out to the School Board before raising the issue in a meeting.
“My initial impression was the Board of Aldermen clearly doesn’t have a clear understanding of the role of the School Board versus the role of the Aldermen,” she said.
She added that the matter was not under the purview of the Board of Aldermen and, even if a referendum were to happen, it would likely not sway School Board’s decision. Further, she acknowledged that the School Board could “potentially” have already made a decision by March rendering a vote moot.
Notte noted Tuesday’s meeting was the first time the School Board had taken up the matter, and more discussion would follow.
She said that while past decisions about changing the mascot, such as retiring the headdress imagery, have been made by the administration, the board would take the lead here.
“Since it is such a controversial topic, the decision and legal advice was that it was a board decision,” she said.
Before any action is taken, Notte said the board would seek input from students and the broader community.
She said a virtual public forum is scheduled for 5 p.m. on Oct. 6.
Speaking to the Herald on Wednesday, RCPS Superintendent Bill Olsen said a critical next step in the process is to talk to students since they have been left out of the conversation because of summer break.
“The kids in the building really haven’t had a chance to talk about this or absorb it or learn about it,” he said. “So we want to give them an opportunity to get educated about the concept and weigh in on it.”
Olsen said the mascot imagery needs to be aligned with the vision statement of the school district, which pledges to “cultivate a passionate, diverse and resilient community of critical thinkers who learn with purpose, create innovative and responsible solutions, and lead lives of integrity.”
Regarding the call for a referendum, Olsen said he tended to agree with Alderman Chris Ettori, who worried that a vote “gives numbers to division.”
“I think we have to consider, is this just something that represents the community well?” Olsen asked. “Is it offensive to certain groups in our community? Or is it offensive to kids in the building? … If any of those questions are in the negative, then I think we should consider … how do we want to represent ourselves?”
“I just feel like it’s sort of a simple question,” he said.