By Annabel Bruno
I played a lot of sports in high school: soccer in the fall, snowboarding in the winter, and some mix of lacrosse, swimming and pre-season camps in the spring and summer. It will come as no surprise to those who know me that the athlete in my “tri-scholar athlete” status at RHS may have come second to the scholar or even third to the socializer. While I may not have been MVP and maybe (definitely) was on JV as a senior, being a part of these teams taught me community; they brought me under the caring gaze of coaches, connected me to the sepia-toned photos of my uncles in football gear, allowed me to take pride in school celebrations and helped me make friends that I cherish to this day. I was in. I was a part of what made Rutland tick.
But, what is community if some of its members feel excluded — or even harmed — by the terms that define it? This is the question I’ve been asking myself in light of recent calls to change Rutland’s mascot. As my classmate Amanda Gokee points out “[m]ascots like the Raiders and the arrowhead are the continuation of a violent and racist history that has actively sought to exterminate Native peoples and culture” — it signals to our indigenous colleagues and neighbors that we don’t mind reducing them to a relic, a kitschy logo, a stereotype that has been used to justify violence against them.
(“But it’s just a symbol!” You might be saying to yourself. “My family is from Ireland — should we petition the Celtics or Notre Dame to change their mascots?”)
My family, like many of yours, settled in Rutland after fleeing persecution and economic hardship in Europe. Here, they found work as farmers, car salesmen, and seamstresses and built futures for their children and grandchildren. This land, however, that we have worked and passed on through generations was inhabited for thousands of years before we arrived. Rutland is on unceded Abenaki land. It wasn’t given to European settlers, it was stolen.
The dominant historical narrative tells us that First Nations were killed off in these struggles for land. While colonial expansion was a horribly violent process, this narrative relies on the falsehood of native extinction. Indigenous people are not extinct. They are — despite many violent attempts to eradicate them through forced sterilization, residential schools, and other forms of genocide — alive and well. They are members of our communities, they are taxpayers, they are team members. While Rutland’s non-native families come with their own histories of hardship, they do not come with this experience of settler-colonialism — including land theft and genocide.
(Now you’re saying “Okay fine — different groups of people have different histories and I can acknowledge that Abenaki land was stolen during the formation of the U.S., but why do we care about changing the mascot now?”)
There have actually been many attempts to change Rutland’s mascot over the years. As Amanda Gokee mentioned, the mascot was changed from a headdress to an arrowhead and Red removed from Red Raiders in the early 2000s. This was the first official acknowledgement of the mascot’s racist implications. But it’s not enough. As a white person and a settler on this land, I have to be accountable by building community that values inclusivity and celebrates difference and doesn’t make a mockery of it. I want to live in a town that reflects the values I learned during my many years as a Rutland teammate and a student. And, really, is it ever the wrong time to fight for what’s right?
(Okay okay,” you’re saying, “I GET IT, but where is the money going to come from?)
As a place to start we can look to the $30,000 that the Rutland City Public Schools 2021 budget allocates to athletic supplies. Additionally, the Booster Club generously supports Rutland teams with sales of sports gear. A change in mascot may even help generate revenue as people purchase items bearing the new mascot. On a larger scale, all taxpaying residents of Rutland pay into the Vermont Education Fund, the main source of funding for this year’s school budget. As taxpayers, this is an opportunity to participate in deciding how our money is spent. This is a chance for us to actively create the community that we are so intent on preserving.
“Perhaps you’re right,” you say, “but is changing the mascot enough?”
To be blunt: no. It is the bare minimum we can do to acknowledge how we have benefitted from stolen Abenaki land. This is a start. Acknowledgement and acceptance does not condemn you to a life of guilt and frustration, nor does it negate the hardships you and your family have faced. Instead, we can take this knowledge and channel it into change that benefits our entire community. We can use this energy to diversify school curricula, make reparations, and speak out against other forms of state violence. In other words, this is an opportunity to embody those community values instilled in us as children who grew up in Rutland. As Amanda Gokee so aptly put it, “We have a responsibility to do better. The time for changing the mascot is now.”