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Merrimack Valley School Board Pushes for Compromise on Native American Mascot

Sarah Gibson for NHPR


Merrimack Valley High School’s former mascot - a depiction of a Native American man in a headdress - will be removed from some parts of the school but remain in others. The compromise came after hours of public comments and discussion at a school board meeting on Monday night.

The school replaced its Native American mascot with a lion fifteen years ago, responding to concerns that the image was hurtful and offensive.

But the original mascot is still displayed on banners, plaques, and on the gym floor. A group has called on the district to remove the imagesentirely, but over 2,000 people signed a counter-petition, saying the images should be saved to honor alumni, and suggesting that removing the mascot further erased the presence of Native Americans in Penacook.

“If you’re trying to use a logo to honor us, my question is: where is the education behind that?” asked Denise Pouliot, a member of the Cowasuck Band of the Penacook-Abenaki people. “If you’re truly saying that you’re honoring us as indigenous people, then you should have classes here at your school teaching about us.”

Pointing to a podium with a crest of the Native American mascot, Principal David Miller said the school’s intent was to balance cultural sensitivity with historical context.

“I should tell you that that podium has seen every graduation ceremony, every award ceremony, every important function that has taken place within this building,” he said.

Amy Moriarty, a member of the Kiowa, Hunkpapa, and Oglala Sioux tribes and a parent of former MVHS students, told board members the headdress was offensive and inaccurate; it was used by the Sioux tribe in the Midwest, not by Abenaki tribes here.

“Our headdresses are sacred to us; each feather is earned,” she said. “You have it on the floor as a mockery.”

“I don’t mean it to offend anybody,” alumnus Paul Nylen countered, pointing to the mascot on his vintage t-shirt. “It’s about history. It’s about pride. It’s about who we were.”


Credit Sarah Gibson for NHPR
Paul Pouliot, a member of the Cowasuck Band of Penacook Abenaki People, looks at images of the Native American mascot that will remain in MVHS's Hall of Fame.

Kathleen Blake, chair of the Commission on Native American Affairs, counts at least six schools in New Hampshire with a Native American mascot. The State Board of Education endorsed the removal of these mascots in 2002, and in 1992, the National Education Association (NEA) condemned the use of ethnic symbols as mascots. 

The NEA-NH said it did not have a position on the MVHS mascot.

The Merrimack Valley school board voted to remove the image from banners in the gym and put some of the objects with Native American images in a designated historical space. 

But school board member and MVHS alumnus Bobbi-Jo Micheal said the decisions sent mixed messages.

“I feel like we’re all over the place because we’re trying to please everybody,” she said. “I’m thinking about my own children, trying to explain to them that when they come in here, they have to go into a secret vault to see the history that I have in this district. If that’s wrong - I don’t want to offend anybody, that’s not how I’m built - but I’m really struggling with that.”

Citing concerns about cost, the board voted to put the question of removing the image from the gym floor to voters in March. It also directed the curriculum committee to develop education on Native Americans history and culture, in conjunction with the Mt. Kearsage Indian Museum and the Commission on Native American Affairs. 

Jon Morton, who started the petition to keep the mascots, praised the push for more education, but said he would continue to organize alumni to keep the mascot on the gym floor.

Members of the group pushing to remove the mascot said there was still work ahead.

“It’s progress," Amy Moriarty said. "But unfortunately they still don’t see it for what it is."


Sarah Gibson joined NHPR's newsroom in 2018. She reports on education and demographics.
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