Three Belmont High School students are taking on an issue few adults would tackle these days.
Student Council members Andre Bragg, Taylor Becker and Ashley Fenimore led a forum Wednesday night where they asked the community to consider whether the school’s mascot – “Red Raider” – was offensive to Native Americans.
The issue came up recently in a Social Studies class and the Council thought the question was significant enough to begin a public dialog.
More than 80 people attended the meeting, most either alumni or student athletes dressed in their distinctive red-and-white team gear.
The Council members told the audience they don’t want to get rid of the popular team nickname, instead they want to replace its Native American imagery. They suggested a caped Revolutionary War character, a knight, or a fierce-looking red bird, all designed with a strong splash of red.
This would let the school keep its popular slogan – “Once a Raider, Always a Raider” – but stop using the image of the mascot that’s a modern-style drawing of a Native American chief’s head.
During the public discussion, BHS teacher and coach Aaron Hayward said he supports the change. He said he’s proud of the school and its athletes but that he’s sometimes embarrassed by the nickname when the team travels to other parts of New England or around the country.
But most people in the audience didn’t like the idea. They said the mascot represents the school’s history as well as admirable characteristics typically associated with Native Americans: determination, dedication, and a strong, resolute spirit.
“When people originally chose these nicknames they did it for a reason,” said resident John Bergeron. “If they did it to put them (Native Americans) down, they wouldn’t have used them. You pick names like the Patriots, the Pioneers or anything like that because you want to be like them.”
Longtime BHS baseball coach Brett Sottak said the mascot has a strong meaning for the school’s sports teams. “We fight hard, we play hard, we compete hard,” he said, “We’re raiders.”
Earlier in the evening, the student council representatives showed a video produced by the National Congress of Native Americans, illustrating its opposition to mascots and nicknames like “Red Raiders.” (Video is posted below.) They also reported that a former BHS student who was Native American responded to a recent questionnaire by saying he was uncomfortable with the “Red Raiders” name.
They also said it was important for the community to look beyond its own sensibilities to how the mascot is seen by others.
“Our school district’s mission statement says our school’s goal is ‘to develop a community of lifelong learners, critical thinkers, and responsible, productive citizens,” said Bragg. “How can we be responsible citizens who contribute to society if we don’t look at how things we’re doing are perceived by others outside our community?”
“Protests by Native, educational and other advocacy organizations (against Native American nicknames and mascots) have been fairly continuous since the 1960s,” said Pete Sanfacon who created the New England Anti-Mascot Coalition in 2006, and whose alma mater – Spaulding High School in Rochester – also uses the “Red Raider” nickname.
The NAACP, The National Congress of American Indians and the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights have each published statements and resolutions calling for an end to race-based sports mascots, nicknames, and logos.
In 2002, the New Hampshire State Board of Education adopted a resolution which states, in part, that the use of "Native American symbols as mascots, logos, and sports team nicknames have, in the opinion of the Board, a detrimental effect on the achievement, education, self-concept, and self-esteem of American Indian students, and sends an improper message to everyone of the true meaning and spirit of being of American Indian heritage."
But that hasn’t necessarily meant New Hampshire schools have made changes. Nine New Hampshire school still have Native American nicknames, including Alton Central School’s “Apaches,” and Merrimack High School's "Tomahawks," but some are rarely used or represented in a graphic way.
In 1969, Dartmouth College, which was founded to educate Native Americans, became the first major academic institution in America to drop its “Indian” nickname. In 2004, Merrimack Valley High School changed its mascot from the "Indian" to "The Pride."
When Laconia High School considered getting rid of its Sachems name a few years back, some local Native Americans were among those who fought to save it.
This is not the first time the question of the team nickname has been raised at BHS. Associate Principal Rick Acquilono, who has coached BHS teams, pointed out a banner that hangs in the gymnasium.
The graduating class that bought it left out the word “red” so it only boosts Belmont High School’s “Raiders.” It caused some controversy when it first appeared, he reported.
At Wednesday night’s forum, BHS senior Matt LeClair, who wore a sweatshirt that read, “Work Hard. Play Hard,” walked quietly to the microphone at the front of the room. “I’ve contemplated this a lot in the past could of days,” he said. “My suggestion is that, when we look at the Red Raiders it’s the ‘Red’ part that’s the problem. Why not get rid of that part, the racial slur part of it?”
After the meeting, the council conducted a paper poll of the attendees, asking for input on the issue. The students said they’d eventually bring their findings to the Shaker Regional School Board and the board would make any final decision.
However, a town official asked that any change be put before voters before it was approved.
Ray Carbone is a longtime Lakes Region writer and editor who maintains a blog about the area, “The Lakes Region of New Hampshire.”
Watch the video produced by the National Congress of Native Americans: