(Source: Boston Public Library)
My school’s administration proudly claims that the building is “a place of possibilities” while simultaneously perpetuating racism.
This past summer, a group of students at my school, James Caldwell High School, formed “Change The Chiefs,” an advocacy group opposed to our current mascot — a stereotypical head of a Native American chief. While James Caldwell is just one of many in the country to grapple with the national movement to nix Native American mascots, our case is a bit different than other schools that are entangled in a similar controversy.
“The name ‘Chiefs’ originates from my school’s former athletic director Harris Bonnel. During his time at James Caldwell, Bonnel invited a Native American tribe to the high school to educate the community on the indigenous culture, and they gave him the honorary title of “Chief,” according to Dan Romano, the current athletic director at James Caldwell. As stated by Josh Axelrod, a writer for NJ.com, “By the time Bonnel retired in 1975, he had overseen the expansion of the athletic program to 19 teams, which reportedly took on the name “Chiefs” to honor him.”
Although Native American residents in my town have expressed finding the mascot offensive, many other residents insist that the mascot is not a racist symbol but a commemorative of Bonnel’s legacy, claiming that the school’s “name and logo are not discriminatory nor were they meant to be.”
As of September 21, 2020, my school’s Board of Education has decided that the “Chiefs” logo will not be removed. When prompted for an explanation as to why, the President of the Board stated, “we don’t feel that the logo is detrimental to anyone… Basically, it came as an honor to Chief Bonnel.”
I was extremely disappointed when I read about the Board’s decision in the local paper — frustrated at their inability to understand that by making minority groups into caricatures, we are invalidating their struggles and silencing their voices. As I continued to reflect on the situation, I came to realize that the Board’s decision was reflective of the flaws within our curriculums.
Those who choose to not acknowledge the demeaning of indigenous people with the use of our “Chiefs” mascot are the consequences of the incomplete Native American history taught at my school.
James Caldwell High School offers the bare minimum when it comes to learning about Native American history. Teachers focus on the Trail of Tears, the Dawes Act and other historically significant events that have to be covered in the curriculum. But after the nineteenth century, Native Americans disappear from the pages of our history books, causing children — who grow into adults — to unconsciously define them as irrelevant people of the past. Without an understanding of contemporary Native American issues, people are less likely to care and less likely to want to spark change.
Education on Native American history, both past and present, needs to be complete and holistic. Even as history textbooks leave students unaware of the struggles Native Americans are facing, there should be no excuse for ignorance. Teachers should encourage their students to conduct individual research projects, read books that provide new perspectives and engage in conversations on the ongoing discrimination against indigenous peoples.
History is essentially a narrative — and the version of history that is taught depends on whose stories are chosen to be told. The very selection of which stories to teach in a classroom shapes our understanding of society, how it came to be and whether it should change in the future. These choices are ones to be made carefully. History teachers, however well-meaning, should be aware of the hidden prejudices in the curriculum.