A Warrior love story

First published in the Wakefield Daily Item Forum, April 12, 2021.

I loved the Wakefield Warrior. I really did. Well, it wasn’t romantic love, or some kind of weird, obsessive attachment. But there was love involved.

I own a classic gray Wakefield hoodie with red highlights and the Warrior mascot emblazoned on front. I’m a big hoodie fan and it has been one of my favorites for years. I’d wear it all the time, running around Lake Quannapowitt on a brisk morning, or walking the dogs in Breakheart Reservation, or raking leaves in my backyard. I’m not a townie – I didn’t grow up here or graduate from Wakefield High School – but I love this town. I’ve lived here over twenty years and my kids were born here and went through the schools. As they grew, I sported the hoodie on countless occasions at my kids’ soccer matches, track and cross-country meets, and hockey games.

Admit it, Boomers, the Warrior is a cool design. As a suburban kid in the 1970s, I was into comics and cartoons full of superheroes and villains and exotic characters. With its bold lines and angular symmetry, the Warrior’s fierce visage evoked, for me, some of the same feelings those characters did: strength, toughness, fearlessness, a distinctive dark or menacing air that says “don’t mess with me.” Qualities you want in a warrior, I thought. Though, to be honest, I didn’t really think about it. I had no uneasiness with the Warrior, no ambivalence. I wore my hoodie proudly. It gave me a good feeling. Love, maybe.

If not love, maybe nostalgia. I’ve always believed that nostalgia is one of the most powerful human emotions. Think about it: our past experiences are, to a great extent, who we are, and the wave of emotion that accompanies memories from happier, simpler times – memories from our youth – is hard to resist. I remember when my wife and I first moved to Wakefield, we were struck by how many of our new friends and neighbors had grown up here. We thought this reflected well on the town: people loved it so much growing up here that they stayed, or came back to settle down after being away. When you think of that in the collective, it’s not surprising that the power of nostalgia in Wakefield would be very strong. And it stands to reason, where nostalgia is stronger, change is harder. Right?

I’ve been thinking, trying to figure out what happened here, why the town went crazy and ripped itself apart over a high school mascot. As usual with these kinds of things, the apartness was already there, waiting. It just needed the right tool or device to spur it and amplify it. The Wakefield Warrior filled this role perfectly and ironically – a symbol intended to rally students and alumni and parents in school spirit and solidarity. Perhaps what happened was the Warrior’s revenge, his way of “cancelling” us. In retrospect, we probably deserved it.

It has been a difficult journey for Wakefield, and a journey for me too. When I first heard about the controversy over retiring the Native American mascot, I found myself arguing against changing it. As I said, I liked the design; I had fond memories of wearing the hoodie around town, affirming my school and town spirit; I relished representing Wakefield by wearing it at family events at our house or on family trips (my wife is from Long Island and has siblings and cousins spread around the Northeast). I rationalized: This is no Cleveland Indians mascot, an obviously demeaning caricature. The qualities represented by the depiction of our Warrior are meant to be admirable – grit and bravery and fearsomeness against opponents on the field of play. Surely, people must understand this good intention on my part and on the part of Warrior supporters everywhere?

I wondered about a middle path, such as shifting to the more stately and traditional profile image that had been used previously. I wondered about whether we could confer with local tribes, as a friend had suggested, to come up with a joint approach that would involve keeping the mascot but integrating more Native American history into our curriculum. As a natural mediator, myself, I thought there must be a way to work this out. I mean, of course there are ways we need to change our thinking and behavior to account for past injustice, but we have to draw the line somewhere, right?

I kept an open mind. I talked to my college-aged daughter. I had conversations with friends and neighbors on both sides of the issue. I listened to speakers at the forum in February, and to the panel of tribal leaders and representatives from around the state in March. I thought about what was said and I searched online to learn more.

I came to realize something: underlying the stories of people of Native American ancestry who grew up with these mascots all around them and how that made them feel; underlying the social science research showing the adverse effects such mascots have on Native American people’s self-image, particularly young people; underlying the tragic, horrific history of our country’s treatment of Native Americans, from the arrival of European settlers on this continent all the way up to the present – underneath all of this, a deeper truth was revealed: This is not about me or my opinion or my intentions or even my feelings.

Of course, no one can discount the love or nostalgia or pride we feel when we think of the things from our past – the unforgettable football or basketball game, the pep rally, the Warrior sticker on our first car or on a musical instrument case, our favorite hoodie – things we thought were ours. These feelings are real and they’re powerful. But sometimes how something makes us feel isn’t as important as how it makes others feel. I see now that this is one of those times.

I certainly don’t believe it’s anyone’s intention in Wakefield to hurt Native Americans or cause them harm. And for most folks who want to keep the current mascot, I believe that they believe their intentions are good, that their view of the mascot’s qualities as being admirable is their genuine feeling. It was my feeling too. But it’s important to separate intentions from effects. If there is evidence that actions are having bad effects on others, this trumps whatever our intentions are, however good or neutral.

More importantly, I realized that our feelings and intentions as non-Native Americans are not the ones that matter most here. And it is this need to put others’ interests and feelings before our own that seems to be hardest for some people, and the cause of a lot of the ugliness we’ve seen in our town recently. That and, of course, change.

This need for change implies no offense. There is no offense to the Bayrd family or to General Galvin, who were involved in creating the mascot design long ago. No offense to all the Wakefield High School alumni who loved the mascot during their high school days. No offense to those earlier times when a “trading post” store selling crafts and various items depicting Native Americans was the norm. But we are no longer in those times. Times have changed, and so must we. The voices of Native Americans and people from other groups that have been oppressed are rising and beginning to be heard. For the first time in our country’s history, we have a Native American member of the Cabinet, Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland. I wonder what she would think of the mascot?

Change can be hard, and often makes people feel threatened. It doesn’t help that we’ve all been conditioned by modern political culture and the media to yell and shake our fists in anger at change we don’t like. Sadly, this anger has been amplified in Wakefield by social media, by angry provocateurs and trolls on the Wakefield Community Facebook pages, and by the esteemed columnist of the Wakefield Daily Item who transparently riles up and divides the town he purports to love. All of this only makes people behave even worse: leaving anonymous letters at people’s houses, removing lawn signs, or, as happened to me, having a stranger rifle through my Facebook memories to find a photo of me in my hoodie at a family holiday party, then posting it and calling me a hypocrite. (At the time, I had not written or posted publicly on the mascot issue, one way or the other.)

Maybe, in cases such as this one, a more appropriate, less destructive response to change might be sadness. Sadness at needing to let go of things that don’t fit anymore. And as we learn more about the wrongs suffered by Native Americans in the U.S., sadness at our previous blinders and ignorance.

I’m not a hypocrite. I used to love the Warrior. Or, rather, I loved the feeling of wearing my hoodie and showing my Wakefield pride without thinking too much about it. But I have thought and listened and learned, and my view has changed. After all, what’s the point of a journey if you’re not learning from it, trying to grow and become wiser? What’s the point of a journey if you’re not even really thinking or genuinely trying to educate yourself, but merely reacting against change, attempting to preserve a past long since gone?

You can’t stop progress. All you can do is move forward and try to learn and to do the right thing. The journey goes on, for Wakefield and for all of us. It never ends.

© Jeff Kehoe