My wife and I slid back and forth past each other as we prepared our mid-morning coﬀee in the kitchen. On the table, the paper lay open to an article about the Danville School Indian mascot and a community petition to save it.
In an interview with the Champlain Valley News, Chief Don Stevens of the Nulhegan-Abenaki Tribe pointed out that what’s now indeed the Danville area was once the Tribe’s homeland. “Mascots,” Stevens said, “are compilations of 500 nations into one stereotypical symbol [that] isn’t part of the school’s culture or incorporated into its curriculum.” He noted that the Indian represented in the Danville mascot in full war bonnet never existed in the northeast, that full war bonnets were only worn on the heads of male Indians of the Great Plains. He could also have pointed out that the occasions for wearing such headdresses were spiritual, religious, and not, as Stevens said, “for entertainment purposes.”
Ultimately, the School Committee came to the painful conclusion that the Danville Indian mascot had to go.
This is a troubling matter, and not only, as newer Vermonters may think, because of what’s implied about our presumed attitudes about mascot Indians, but because long-time residents won’t put up with anyone tampering with the symbols that define them.
My old climbing friend is a seventh-generation Vermonter. That defines her as much as her loyalty to the Vermont colleges she’s attended, the long-walk-in trout stream pools she’s fished, peaks she’s bagged, local kids she’s coached, the fact that she and her brothers are all first-named after the Vermont towns they were born in. For many, where they live, what they do there, with whom, and for how many generations, are also parts of their identity, like the Indian became to Danville.
Years ago, when my wife was teaching there, her students painted the mascot in the center of the gym floor. Several generations of squeaking sneakers and blunt, clunky folding chair legs did their unintentional best to eradicate that logo. Now the eradication is happening, but for very intentional, and ethical, reasons, and to the outrage of earlier generations of Danville students, grown-ups now, yet forever loyal to the community-bonding school and its encompassing symbol.
It’s about a sense of place, my wife said. When folks live in a town, attend the village school, marry there, and raise the next generation of citizens there, nearly everything in and of the town feels “owned” by these people, not least the things perceived as symbolic.
Others, folks who moved here over the last decades, or those more recently to escape the dismay of disease and dysfunctional politics, may understandably feel less attached to local traditions and symbols, but more attached to local security and stability and to values they brought with them and have modified, adapted to their new community.
Many years ago, in a difficult time, I was single parenting while supporting a divided family by commuting among three widely-distanced jobs, and homes in two widely distanced towns. I felt as if my life was on the road, and time was my most valuable commodity. Well, money, too. I made up and memorized lesson plans driving between jobs, stole time to sit squirming in the stands in sympathy with my sons writhing on wrestling mats.
His helmeted Greek warrior school mascot was the absolute least of our interests — parents or kids. I wanted him to excel, individually and as part of a team. For personal glory, for self-respect, sure, but also college creds. So it was another late afternoon match at a distant high school, then the race home to cook augmented ramen for supper. Then put on the Mobil shirt and head oﬀ to the night shift manager’s oﬃce at the gas station.
The beater VW Beetle I drove then logged a lot of miles on any given day. It gave me time to contemplate the significance of my son’s school’s Greek warrior. A killer Spartan or an Athenian philosopher drafted into battle?
Which came first, the mascot or the importance of selecting one? UVM has a Catamount, an extinct killer cat. Harvard, the Crimson — hard to get all lathered up about a dull red color.
My alma mater’s mascot (before the college went co-ed) was a French & Indian War British soldier who gave small-pox-infected blankets to the Indians. Oh yay. The University of Oregon’s mascot’s a duck. A duck!
My high school mascot was a bull. But our real mascot, if we were motivated by anything external to ourselves, was Don Henderson, a veteran of World War II and the Tenth Mountain Division, who survived being wounded in the mountains in Italy and taught skiing and history to generations of students. His gimlet-eyed scrutiny of every insight one drew from a text, every word one wrote, drove his students to reach deeper, think longer, re-write endlessly. A lot of what we did was motivated by him.
Injun Joe of Joe’s Pond may have known of the Danville School, but he’s unlikely to ever have darkened its doorway. If it were up to me to find Danville School a new mascot, I’d give some thought to a motivating, tenacious person. Or perhaps to something green. Turf’s green. In sport, we fight for our turf. Defend our turf, then parade victoriously around on it. How about the Danville Green, the Big Green?
As my wife said, it’s about a sense of place.