By ANDY GARDNER
MASSENA -- The lack of a mascot, racial incidents and the continued use of a controversial former school symbol are causing tension at the Massena Central School District.
Superintendent Patrick Brady said two Massena seniors, Paige Cook and James Donnelly, went before the board of education at their Thursday meeting to talk about the opinions that are causing tension.
“They feel the lack of a mascot to replace the former Indian head is causing some issues amongst the student body,” Brady said.
Until the beginning of this century, the Massena Red Raiders mascot was a red Indian head.
“The Indian head was removed in the 2000s, and replaced by a block M, some groups are still using it based on tradition and the lack of a different mascot to replace it,” Brady said.
Although it’s been removed from all official school uniforms and athletic spaces, parent groups are still producing and distributing Massena sports memorabilia with the logo.
“As was mentioned by the students at the meeting, they mentioned the high school hockey team. None of the school-sponsored jerseys have the Indian head any longer. But when the parent groups purchase jackets, as they did this year, and hats, it did have the Indian head on it and it caused concern,” the superintendent said.
The student body, and larger community, is mostly split between two opinions.
“From the Native perspective, reducing their culture to a mascot or caricature is demeaning. They feel they did not ask for their culture to be appropriated and used by the school as a symbol,” Brady said. “From the non-Native perspective, the general sentiment from what I hear is the Red Raider and Indian head is an expression of honor to the Native culture. Many see it as a heroic symbol and a point of pride. It is part of the school’s history and they do not see what the fuss is all about.”
He said there is some crossover. Some Native students feel the Indian head is appropriate, and some non-Native students feel it is cultural appropriation.
“That makes it even a more complex issue,” Brady said.
He says he’s concerned that the controversy could be interfering with education.
“It does concern me, we have a student population that is 11 percent Native, if any students are feeling like they are not accepted or … feeling like that are not accepted in the school because it is their school as well. And we want all our students to feel comfortable here,” Brady said.
He said there have been some recent “racial incidents.”
Last year, there was an incident at hockey game where Massena player made a derogatory comment about Natives.
Brady said that “led to division within the student body and negative comments on social media.” And in the fall, there were comments exchanged on social media about Massena’s lack of a mascot, and “why don’t we have a mascot, and the thought of bringing back the Indian head, and that sparked issues in the school building and on social media,” Brady said.
Brady said he expects the mascot issue to come up at other board meetings. They next meet on July 5 at 6:30 p.m. in the high school’s room 314.
“I’m not sure what the outcome will be, but with Native and non-Native students coming forward and raising the issue, it has sparked discussion and I hope it will lead to a positive outcome,” Brady said. “It’s not clear to me where the board stands on this issue and it’s likely, since there are nine members of the board from the community, their perspectives will likely reflect the different perspectives that are in the community.”
He said he has taken steps that he hopes will simmer some of the tensions between the Native and non-Native students.
“I worked with the students and a group of our counselors and administrators to create a committee, and it’s been referred to as the School Climate Committee, to create ways we can make better understanding among Native and non-Native population,” Brady said. “They looked at infusing more Native history and culture in the curriculum, as well as look at doing some team-building exercises among staff and students … to build relationships and some social events that involve the Native culture, including the teaching of traditional Native names to our staff so they can pronounce them correctly. It’s important that they can pronounce the names correctly.”