Residents of Dartmouth, Massachusetts head to the polls Tuesday for municipal elections that include a referendum on whether their public high school’s teams should continue to be known as “the Indians.”

Similar debates in Cleveland and Washington, D.C. have flared on the national stage for years, leading professional sports teams in both cities to retire Native American names and imagery. But in Dartmouth, a coastal town of some 29,000 residents, the issue has blurred familiar battle lines, spawning an unexpected alliance between local members of the Aquinnah Wampanoag tribe and the town’s Republican party.

As the public debate continues, questions of who the logo oppresses, and who benefits from its removal, remain hard to answer.

Local Aquinnah Wampanoag and Republicans join forces

Members of the Aquinnah Wampanoag tribe, who comprise a large share of the roughly 50 Native Americans counted as Dartmouth residents in the latest U.S. Census, wrote letters to the school committee last summer explaining the current iteration of the logo was designed by one of their own.

Teams at Dartmouth High School changed their name from the Little Green to the Indians in 1958, according to town yearbooks, but it was Aquinnah Wampanoag tribe member Clyde Andrews who penned the version of the logo that’s used by the high school today, according to the letters.

Andrews, a former football star at Dartmouth High School, said that during the season he made all-state in 1973, he wore a uniform featuring a caricature of an Indian that bore little resemblance to his Wampanoag ancestors.

“I started sitting at the dining room table with my different designs of the eastern Woodland Indian, until I came up with one I thought was halfway decent,” Andrews said.

Andrews and his relatives remain some of the logo’s most vocal supporters. His sister, Cheryl Andrews-Maltais, is the chairwoman of the Aquinnah Wampanoag tribe. She authored a letter of her own to the school committee equating the logo’s removal with the erasure of the tribe from the town’s contemporary life. It was a charge that carried heavy weight in Dartmouth, a majority white town with few other public acknowledgements of the town’s Native heritage.

The Andrews family’s testimony at public forums has blurred the lines of what might otherwise have been a familiar conflict between liberal anti-racism and conservative resistance to so-called “cancel culture.”

Some tribal members in Dartmouth seeking to preserve the logo have since turned to the town’s Republican party for help getting their message out.

Local Republicans have seized the opportunity, seeing a way to mobilize an already substantial base that cast 44 percent of the town’s votes during the 2020 presidential election.

This spring, signs with the Indian logo and the words “Defend Dartmouth” started appearing on lawns across town. Financial disclosure forms filed with the Town Clerk show they were paid for by members of the Dartmouth Republican Town Committee. Other committee members organized to put the non-binding referendum about the Indian logo onto the ballot alongside municipal elections.

The results are meant to inform the school committee as it weighs a final decision, but the referendum could also have a significant influence on who wins political office in Dartmouth.

“Normally we have a very low turnout but we’re going to have a higher turnout because of this issue,” said Selectman John Haran, a Republican who collected signatures to get the Indian question onto the ballot.

“I’m on the ballot and I just hope it works in my favor,” said Haran, who’s in a close race for re-election against a Democratic challenger, Heidi Silva Brooks.

Years of public debate

The questions over what to do with Dartmouth’s Native American imagery began three years ago. Lasella Hall, a president of a local NAACP branch in nearby New Bedford, was the first Dartmouth resident to formally ask the school committee to retire the logo.

Shannon Jenkins, chairwoman of Dartmouth’s school committee, said the issue stayed on the backburner until Black Lives Matter protests provoked communities across the country to re-examine racism during the summer of 2020.

At a meeting of the Equality and Diversity Subcommittee, Jenkins described the delicate balance she was trying to strike in opening public discussion of the Indian logo in Dartmouth.

“There’s a tension here,” she told the meeting. “On the one hand, right, you have tribal leaders who want to be consulted. On the other hand there’s the argument that we shouldn’t ask oppressed people if they feel comfortable with their oppression.”

But facing pressure from the Andrews family and other Native American residents of Dartmouth, the school committee eventually agreed to host a series of public hearings about the logo.

Dozens of Dartmouth residents and people from neighboring communities visited the high school auditorium in March for a passionate two-hour discussion.

George Marcotte, a Republican who spearheaded the Defend Dartmouth campaign, said committee members who vote to remove the logo could face recall elections.

“If you want to vote against the majority of the people, Defend Dartmouth will be here,” Marcotte said, assuming results from a referendum that hasn’t been held yet. “We’ll remind everybody what ended up happening.”

Republican activists traded remarks with some of the town’s Native residents, including Jake Ventura, one of the few people with a foot in both camps.

“To date, not a single tribal government has formally stated they are in favor of erasing the Dartmouth Indian,” said Ventura, a member of the Aquinnah Wampanoag tribe and a former Republican candidate for state office. “Additionally, every single Wampanoag Aquinnah member and resident in Dartmouth is unanimous in our support for maintaining the name and symbol.”

The hearings also created space for Native American people from nearby communities who oppose Dartmouth’s Indian logo.

“Native people have longed for a day where we are no longer paraded around like mythical creatures, savages, and aggressive warriors,” said Megan Running Deer Page, a council member from a smaller tribe called the Pocasset Wampanoag of Massachusetts and Rhode Island.

Dawn Blake-Souza, a member of another small tribe called the Assonet Wampanoag, said she’s recently seen Dartmouth fans dressed in stereotypical Indian costumes, despite claims that such behavior is no longer condoned in the town. She described an encounter she and her grandson had at a gas station near Dartmouth’s athletic fields.

“He was confused when he saw them dressed in that style, with the war paint on, and they were hooping and hollering,” Blake-Souza said. “He said to me, ‘Grandma why are they making fun of us?’ And I had a hard time explaining to him why adults would act in this way.”

Tuesday’s non-binding referendum will not immediately settle the issue. The school committee has yet to set a date for an actual vote on the logo.

School officials are, however, taking immediate steps toward initiating a new curriculum about indigenous history in Dartmouth. The goal is to co-author the curriculum with leaders and historians from local tribes.

Ben Berke is the South Coast Bureau Reporter for The Public’s Radio. He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @BenBerke6.