SWANTON – Gedakina, a Native American nonprofit organization, and the Rutland Area NAACP filed formal complaints against the mascots of eight Vermont schools, including the Missisquoi Valley Union “Thunderbirds” earlier this month.
The local Abenaki in Swanton, however, do not support the complaint.
In a joint press release on Tuesday from the Missisquoi Valley School District Indian Education parent advisory committee and the Abenaki Nation of Missisquoi, committee president Brenda Gagne and Chief Joanne Crawford said the Thunderbird is a “welcome acknowledgement of the important history of this area’s Indigenous people.”
They do not support the claim that the symbol is “unsettling” or that it should not be used as the school mascot.
The complaint letter says the mascots are subject to Act 152, which states that all Vermont schools should eliminate the use of discriminatory school branding that perpetuates negative stereotypes.
Missisquoi Valley School District Superintendent Julie Regimbal said as of now, the school has no plans to change the mascot due to public pressure or the complaint.
Regimbal said due process for Act 152 is a formal complaint being submitted, and then a school board hearing.
“The board would make a determination based on the complaint,” Regimbal said. “You can’t just write a letter, say ‘This is bad,’ and then it changes.”
Regimbal said the board would be willing to have a hearing to listen to community members, including the Abenaki Tribal Council and the parent advisory committee, but neither Gedakina nor the Rutland Area NAACP has filed for a hearing.
After such a hearing, if a person was unhappy with the results, they could appeal to the Vermont Secretary of Education.
“The board would be sitting in a sort of quasi-judicial process and personal opinions don’t really come into it,” Regimbal said.
The formal complaint
Signed by executive director of Gedakina Judy Dow and the president of the Rutland Area NAACP Mia Shultz, the letter states the mascots of eight schools in Vermont should be removed.
The schools and mascots are Missisquoi Valley Union’s “thunderbird,” Vermont Common’s “flying turtle,” Brattleboro Union High School’s “colonels,” Leland High School’s “rebels,” Randolph High School’s “galloping ghosts,” Montpelier and Stowe’s “raiders,” and Green Mountain High School’s “chieftains.”
The letter states the mascots either perpetuate racist stereotypes or utilize religious symbols.
The “raiders” for example reference Native American war parties. The thunderbird is an “extremely sacred being or spirit from our stories,” Dow and Shultz’s letter states.
“Our word for the big drum, our sacred drum used in ceremonies is badogi meaning big thunder. The word for Thunderbird is beddaguek or Thunder,” the letter states. “Our music carries the voice of the Thunderbird with it, our music is the heartbeat of the nation.”
Across North America, different Indigenous cultures have different stories regarding thunderbirds. In the Pacific Northwest and many Plains tribes cultures, thunderbirds are regarded as massive birds that generate thunder and lightning according to anthropologists and oral historians.
In Algonquin mythology, covering much of the Northeastern United States and Canada, thunderbirds are seen as thunder deities.
“The sacred being should not be used as a mascot in a public school. Missisquoi is not an Indian School, it is a public school the same as any other schools in northern Vermont with a large number of students that descend from an Indigenous person,” the letter states. “Vermont follows the one drop rule. One ancestor back in the 1600s makes you an Indian? Does it really?”
The letter said when people start to debate mascots like this, they often identify as Native American to back up their opinion “without understanding the history and legacy of harm.”
Abenaki of Missisquoi response
Gagne and Crawford shared a press release with Messenger on Feb. 28, detailing their thoughts on the call to get rid of the MVU mascot/
Their letter states that MVU has a close-knit community of Abenaki and non-Abenaki and that Abenaki culture brings the entire community together.
They do not think the use of the thunderbird is insulting, and “at no time does the symbol evoke recrimination.”
The symbol was chosen in 1971 after school officials met with the late Abenaki chief Homer St. Francis and was given the go-ahead by St. Francis.
According to the letter, St. Francis thought the thunderbird was a symbol of strength and perseverance and the use by the school was appreciated by the local Abenaki community.
After the Abenaki of Missisquoi were recognized by the State of Vermont in 1976 and then derecognized in 1977, the thunderbird was seen in Swanton as a sign of community support for the tribe.
“In contrast to what is being suggested by the article, the use of an Indigenous symbol provides the Indigenous students with a sense of pride and connection to their heritage,” the letter from Gagne and Crawford states. “We do not believe the Thunderbird has any harmful imagery for any student at MVU, including our Abenaki population.”
The letter also states that Act 152 does not refer to animal imagery, and thunderbirds are considered animals.
“Indeed, the harmful effects of pejorative mascots is something the Missisquoi tribe understands and objects to,” the letter from Gagne and Crawford states. “That is why we can support Act 152, in the knowledge that in certain instances, the importance of local control may be substituted for the common good.”
Jeff Benay, the director of Indian Education at MVSD, said this is an instance where local tribal culture and local control is important.
“The thunderbird is a Native American symbol, the imagery is there,” Benay said. “It does typically symbolize energy and strength, but the point is that there are so many different Native points of views.”
He said a symbol in one culture may be completely different in another, and trying to manage at a state or national level may not be the best course of action.
The letter from Gagne and Crawford said a major issue with the request is that Dow and Schultz did not meet or talk with the Abenaki of Missisquoi before sending the formal complaint.
“The Abenaki community had several opportunities for input when MVU was developing its own procedures and selecting a mascot over 50 years ago,” the letter from Gagne and Crawford states. “The importance of expressing one’s voice is that we can promote the building up of a conversation rather than tearing it down. Judy Dow and Mia Schultz sought no conversation with the local MVU community or the Abenaki tribe.”
I don’t understand the compulsion of some individuals to declare war on words that they claim are offensive to them. First of all just because they take offense doesn’t mean that everyone shares their feeling.
The Leland and Gray Rebels are represented by the image of an American Revolutionary patriot. Why would that be offensive in a state where Ethan and Ira Allen are a part of our early history. Rebels are described as individuals who push back on the status quo. Given that definition the Minute men who helped create the United States were rebels. Civil rights leaders of the 60’s including Martin Luther King were rebels. Anyone have a problem with them?
Stowe athletes are known as the Raiders that is depicted by a Pirate. I suppose if you are a strong Law and Order advocate you might take offense at the image of a Pirate who is essentially an outlaw. The Green Mountain Boys were considered raiders. The 1st Marine Raider Bn of WW2 fame was commanded by a Vermonter, Lt. Colonel Merritt Edson of Rutland.
Union 32’s Raiders are depicted by an image of a medieval knight. How is that offensive?
The Brattleboro Colonels pay homage to one of the founding fathers of the city, Colonel Brattle. Besides. Ethan Allen’s revolutionary war rank was also that of a colonel.
The Vermont Common School’s Shelly the Flying turtle? You have to be a little nutty to see something offensive in a flying turtle especially if you read about how it became the student’s mascot.
Missisquoi Valley Union’s Thunderbirds is more than acceptable to the local Abnaki people and yet it is outsiders who are complaining and want it changed. I guess maybe their next targets will be the iconic Ford Thunderbird or perhaps the USAF Thunderbirds air demonstration team.
I hope that the powers to be show a little courage and reject the complaints of these outsiders. Must be terrible to spend all of your time looking for stuff to be offended by.
This very large mural is prominent in the school. The Circle of Courage Youth Drummers and Singers are composed of students. To say that Native Americans are ignored or disrespected in the school would be absurd.
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