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After Washington retires nickname, Maryland high schools face renewed questions about Native American imagery

Havre de Grace High School is moving to a new location this school year, but not everything is coming to its new home.

The Harford County public school, which opened in 1955, is keeping its “Warriors” nickname but will no longer be accompanied by Native American imagery. The bronze bust of a chieftain that graced the school lobby was not moved to the new location. The football team’s helmets will no longer feature a spear. And the Homecoming queen and king will no longer wear Indian headdresses as part of a halftime ceremony.

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Jillian Lader, Harford County Public Schools’ manager of communications, said that the school made the decision before the Washington Redskins’ announcement earlier this week that it would retire its name and logo, which many critics have long considered offensive to Native Americans. She said no group or person asked school administrators to remove the imagery.

The changes coincide with a national reckoning on race and, most recently, renewed criticism of racist imagery in sports teams. Advocates are seizing a moment to push Maryland’s high schools to renounce offensive names and logos — and to foster greater understanding.

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Keith Colston, administrative director of the Maryland Commission on Indian Affairs, sees an opportunity to shed light on the state’s Native American history, and he encourages open dialogue.

“It’s important to understand the historical cultural significance of the tribal communities — meaning that instead of being seen as a mascot for a high school team, for any other subject or entity besides the tribe itself, we find it an improper usage,” he said.

Colston noted that teams and fans may apply names and motions — think of the Atlanta Braves’ Tomahawk Chop — only with sports ardor in mind. But, he said, the use is still offensive.

“If there’s a particular motion in reference to the opposing team, then therefore that type of action could be considered either racial or derogatory, even though the individuals may be only doing it perhaps because it is the opposing team,” he said. “Really what it portrays is ... a negative action or something taking place towards an ethnicity, which of course would be indigenous peoples.”

The Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association directory lists 13 public schools whose team names or mascots refer to Native Americans or the Confederacy.

Along with Havre de Grace, seven other schools are nicknamed the Warriors, including Baltimore County’s Woodlawn. Three are named the Indians, including Reisterstown’s Franklin. Chopticon in St. Mary’s County is named the Braves, and South Hagerstown is called the Rebels.

In 2001, the State Department of Education passed a resolution encouraging schools to stop using names and mascots with stereotypical references. At the time, half of the state’s 26 schools with such references made changes. Included was Baltimore City’s Edmondson, which went from Redskins to Red Storm, starting in 2002.

That same year, the Montgomery County School Board banned Indian mascots, logos and nicknames throughout the school system.

The State Department of Education did not immediately respond this week to multiple requests for comment.

A man runs on the track at Franklin High School where the scoreboard features a profile of the team mascot, an Indian.
A man runs on the track at Franklin High School where the scoreboard features a profile of the team mascot, an Indian. (Jerry Jackson/Baltimore Sun)

Last week, an online petition was launched to change Franklin High School’s nickname. As of Thursday, it had more than 450 signatures. Besides contesting the name as offensive, the petition also took issue with the two feathers featured in the “FHS” logo.

“After winning a battle, Native American warriors were awarded with a feather, a sign of high honor upon the warrior,” according to the petition. “Using this symbol so freely is highly offensive, as it takes away from the religious and spiritual meaning of the feather. This is cultural appropriation, as the founders of FHS were white, and did not do anything to deserve those feathers.”

As of earlier this week, Principal Patrick McCusker said he was unaware of any effort to change the name, and on Thursday afternoon didn’t immediately respond to questions about the online petition.

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Max Grossfeld, a 2010 Franklin graduate who is a journalist for a television station in North Dakota, is adamant that his alma mater change its nickname.

“I think it’s well past time the school moves past the name,” said Grossfeld, who said he was unable to sign the petition due to his work contract. “The school must recognize that it’s racist, as it’s long since moved beyond using the actual mascot. When I was in school, they were using a Ben Franklin mascot instead. Native peoples aren’t mascots. We shouldn’t treat them as such.”

A spokesman for Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. directed questions about Franklin to the Baltimore County School Board. Officials there could not be reached for comment late Thursday.

Back in 2001, Woodlawn decided to remain the Warriors, but removed all of its Native American imagery, including the Indian head from its logo and a stone Indian chief statue at the school’s front entrance.

Now, Havre de Grace is following a similar path.

When the new school on Lewis Lane opens its doors, the gymnasium will be proclaimed “Home of the Warriors” and the nickname will be found elsewhere throughout the building. But the bronze bust, spear-adorned helmets and headdresses will be gone, Lader said.

Interview requests to Havre de Grace’s principal, Jim Reynolds, and its athletic director, Heather Crawford, were directed to Lader, who further stated via e-mail:

“Havre de Grace High School is proud of the ‘Warrior’ mascot, and has always thought of it as its more general definition, ‘a brave or experienced soldier or fighter,’ and not specifically of Native American descent. While the image of a Native American has been used by the high school in the past, we are opening a new building this fall and have not included the image of a Native American in those designs.”

Havre de Grace Council President David Glenn, a resident of the town since 1967 and a 1975 graduate of the school, said he will accept whatever the decision makers decide, but he “will always be a Warrior at heart.”

“Being a proud graduate of Havre de Grace and a vital part of the Havre de Grace community, everything we’ve done with the Warrior name, and everything that it has stood for — it’s all been positive,” he said. “It’s never been negative. With the king and queen – the queen wears the headdress as part of the crown, and it’s all been done for what I’d say is the right reasons. This goes back to the early 2000s and we’ve had Native Americans come out and really go to bat for us, saying they were proud of the way we represented their heritage.”

Glenn — who didn’t refer to specific Native American defenders of the imagery — added that “the Susquehannock Warrior was considered noble and heroic and we try to exemplify those traits,” referring to the tribe that lived in Northern Harford County in the 1600s.

During his playing days and then after as a teacher and the school’s football coach for 18 years, Johnny Brooks, a 1982 grad, says the school was all about the Warriors. Today, he’s understanding of the concerns people have expressed.

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“I don’t know how it’s going to fly. When you think of Warriors, you think of Native Americans,” said Brooks, who left Havre de Grace in 2010 and now teaches at Aberdeen while coaching football at Joppatowne.

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“I don’t know, not being Native American it’s kind of hard to put myself in their shoes. That’s all you can go by — if they think it’s offensive, then you go with it being offensive. You can’t argue that.”

Baltimore Sun reporters Craig Clary, Kyle J. Andrews and Sanya Kamidi contributed to this article.

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