Abenaki tribe defends use of Swanton high school mascot

Published: Mar. 1, 2023 at 6:27 PM EST|Updated: Mar. 1, 2023 at 7:21 PM EST
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SWANTON, Vt. (WCAX) - School mascots are back in the headlines with two groups targeting a list of Vermont schools with nicknames and logos they say are racially and culturally insensitive. But one mascot on the list is being defended by a band of Abenaki who says it creates a sense of pride in the community.

“We’ve always flown high -- very proud of our heritage. And not being recognized, we keep pushing for it because we love who we are,” said Bobbie-Jo Messier, who was born and raised as a member of the Abenaki tribe. She attended Missisquoi Valley Union Middle and High School. The school’s mascot is the thunderbird, a powerful symbol in Abenaki culture.

The NAACP and Gedakina, a Native American advocacy group, have filed a formal complaint against Missisquoi’s use of the thunderbird, saying it objectifies Indigenous religious beliefs.

But in a response from the Abenaki Nation of Missiquoi, Chief Joanne Crawford says the tribe helped to choose the thunderbird over 50 years ago. She says the school’s use of the mascot was meant to “convey strength, perseverance, and heroism as key characteristics for all students to emulate.”

“The thunderbird doesn’t represent hate, it doesn’t represent crime. It doesn’t represent anything but love,” Messier said.

While the Abenaki tribal leadership may support keeping the nickname, the complaint will trigger a process for the school district to review the name under Act 152, a law that took effect last year directing schools to move away from branding that refers to a racial group, individual, custom, or tradition.

“The community -- including the Abenaki community -- is upset at the idea that it is offensive, but the law doesn’t speak to offense and that’s my worry,” said MVSD Superintendent Julie Regimbal.

Along with Missisquoi, the letter targets seven other mascots and nicknames that could run afoul of the law, including the Brattleboro Colonels, Randolph Galloping Ghosts, Leland and Grey Rebels, Vermont Commons Flying Turtles, Green Mountain Chieftains, and the Raiders of both Stowe and U-32.

This follows debates that have taken place in many other school districts across the state as communities wrestle with the issues of racial sensitivity and cultural appropriation.

“I don’t think the names were put there to be potentially bad or offensive to anybody, but I do understand in this day of the changes,” said Nancy St. Lawrence of Isle La Motte.

We reached out to all of the schools targeted by the letter. Green Mountain’s school board chair said the complaint had outdated information. U-32′s superintendent said she did not believe their mascot used Indigenous imagery. Randolph’s superintendent said the school board would set aside time to discuss the complaint at the next school board meeting.

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