When it comes to sports mascots, retiring some of them is a no-brainer. Think Redskins, Savages, and other negative depictions of indigenous peoples and other cultures.
Now two nonprofit groups are demanding other Vermont school mascots should be removed, claiming that they are "upholding harmful legacies that continue to harm our children."
Some of them, however, could be just as easily construed as affirmative, empowering, or just fun and lighthearted.
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The Rutland Area NAACP and Gedakina, an organization that supports Indigenous culture, took exception to, among others, the Randolph Union High School Galloping Ghosts, the Missisquoi Valley Union Thunderbirds, and the Vermont Commons School Flying Turtles. Compass Vermont researched these claims to gauge their accuracy and merits.
Galloping Ghosts: Constructing a Fictional Legacy
Understanding that Randolph Union's depiction of the Galloping Ghost mascot was arguably in bad taste, the school covered it with paint in 2020. But Gedakina and the NAACP argue that the mascot name must also be removed, claiming it has "a deep legacy attached to this image, newly painted or not."
But the "deep legacy" of the real Galloping Ghost was football great Red Grange from the early 1900s. It was also the name of an airplane that once held the airspeed record and a cartoon in the late 1970s.
Any connection between the Galloping Ghost and the KKK was contrived rather than historic.
Think of Thunderbirds As You Would Corn
Along with compelling mythology, Native Americans have a history of great innovation. Kayaks, baby bottles, raised-bed agriculture, and cable suspension bridges are just a few examples, as is corn.
Corn has been cultivated and improved by farmers for approximately 10,000 years. Native Americans then taught European colonists how to grow their own corn correctly. The University of Nebraska's mascot is the Cornhusker, a tribute to Native American innovation and the state's reliance on corn to benefit their economy. Most would argue there is no harm in that.
The Thunderbird, as a mascot, appears to demonstrate that same respect and dignity.
According to Legends of America, "the Thunderbird is a widespread figure in Native American mythology in the United States and Canada. Described as a supernatural being, the enormous bird symbolized power and strength that protected humans from evil spirits. It was called the Thunderbird because the flapping of its powerful wings sounded like thunder, and lightning would shoot out of its eyes."
"Various tribes have different oral traditions about the magical Thunderbird, which they both highly respected and feared."
MVU's depiction of the Thunderbird as a mascot looks to be in keeping with Native American tradition, much like the Cornhusker. The concept of a school or team wanting to symbolize this strength and protection of human beings as a mascot could be seen as a tribute rather than a misuse. It is also hard to see it as upholding legacies that harm children, especially when contrasted against the two best-known depictions of a Thunderbird, which are a fancy car and a "fortified flavor wine" with an 18% alcohol content.
As for the mascot, the MVU Thunderbird legacy looks to be more affirming than harmful.
The Turtle Came First
Finally, we turn to the turtle. The complaint takes issue with the Vermont Commons School using the turtle as a mascot because it is part of their tribes' creation story. This needs to be respected, but not exclusively.
The turtle is also part of Hindu and Chinese cultures, not to mention it is a beloved animal worldwide.
Scientists estimate turtles have been on earth for over 100 million years compared to humans at about 300,000 years. The turtle preceded the mythology and isn't the sole property of any culture.
The Vermont Commons School celebrates the turtle, endows it with the gift of flight, and honors it in its many depictions. No one found harm when it won second place in a statewide contest in 2021. They voted for it.
The complaint letter states that "Whether. . . we are new immigrants or the original caretakers of this land, we all desire to have safe, happy, healthy communities and children free from imagery and names that perpetuate harm."
Our conclusion: No animal better depicts happiness and health without harm than the turtle. We say: "Let it fly."