NATICK - Once a Redman, always a Redman? That's the question fans of the local high school teams are asking in this sports-crazy suburb, as they decide whether to hang onto a team moniker some feel is racist and anachronistic.
A year ago, it seemed that the Natick Redmen would soon take the field for the last time. The School Committee voted to dump the name - and the silhouette of a Native American in a feathered headdress that some teams and local boosters have adopted as an unofficial logo - in time for the 2008 football season. A task force of students, school officials, and leaders from local Native American tribes searched for a new name that the whole town could rally around.
But tradition doesn't die easily in a town that calls itself the "Home of Champions" and reveres its most famous graduate, Doug Flutie. The task force considered suggestions from the community such as "Natick Pride," "Red Hawk Men," "Volunteers" and "Americans," before settling on "Natick Hawks" last month.
The choice was widely derided. "For the birds!" sneered one local chat board pundit.
The task force also may have violated town regulations by voting on the name without notifying the public in advance, further weakening support for the new name.
On Monday, a group that wants to preserve the team name intends to present the selectmen with a petition signed by 1,800 residents and demand the issue go to a townwide vote March 25. They have plastered the slogan, "Once a Redman, always a Redman." on bumper stickers that have become an increasingly common sight on Main Street.
"This is about pride in hometown and family tradition," said petition drive organizer Sue Lamont. "You played on your grandfather's team and on your father's team."
Lamont said even Natick high alumni who don't care about sports have emotional ties to the name. "You all walked under that Redmen graduation banner," she said.
Flutie, who won the Heisman trophy as a collegian and played in the Pro Bowl as an NFL quarterback, expressed support for the old name.
"People should quit walking on eggshells," Flutie, a commentator for ESPN, said yesterday through a spokeswoman. "It's one squeaky wheel [objecting], and everyone else is afraid to rock the boat."
But Pete Sanfacon - founder of the Framingham-based New England Anti-Mascot Coalition, which advocates against the use racial stereotypes in sports mascots and nicknames - said that Natick's pride should not come at the expense of Native Americans who find the name offensive.
"Native Americans have testified again and again that this name is hurtful to them," he said.
Some Native Americans say the name cannot be separated from the history of mistreatment of their peoples and is a sad reminder of Colonial times, when Native Americans in Natick were buried in unmarked graves underneath what is now the town center. Many of the region's Native Americans were forced into internment camps on Deer Island in Boston Harbor.
Rosita Andrews of Stoughton - a descendent of Natick's Praying Indian tribe, who is also known as Chief Caring Hands - could not be reached for comment this week, but has said in statements to the School Committee that "continued use of the name would be racist and offensive."
The dispute is exposing other cultural fault lines in a town that has seen much change in recent years. Traditionally a working-class neighbor to ultra-affluent suburbs such as Weston and Wellesley, Natick has seen house prices double in the past decade, An arts center, yoga studio, and fashion boutique have sprouted on Main Street, where a traditional diner and a decades-old shoe store recently closed.
These changes make it even more important to preserve Natick's core identity, said Jimmy Brown, president of Natick High's 1973 graduating class and an organizer of the petition.
"The name Redmen is part of Natick," he said. "It is Natick."
Brown and Lamont said the name was never meant to degrade Native Americans. They said it caught on in the early 1960s, after a sports announcer saw a group of red-shirted players crossing a field, and yelled out, "Here come the Redmen!"
Sanfacon dismissed the idea that the name does not refer to Native Americans as "ridiculous and disingenuous."
"Natick's football players will perform just as well if the team is called the Hawks," he added. "And most of the people who are complaining the loudest have been out of high school for decades. They should get over it."
Joe Keefe, interim superintendent of Natick schools, said he did not believe the town had officially sanctioned the use of the silhouette logo on team jerseys. Natick varsity jerseys typically bear a large N for Natick, and the word Redmen across the chest.
But a handful of teams do display the logo, and the image is a common sight on booster paraphernalia like the T-shirts and buttons sold around town.
Some residents have suggested keeping the name, but dropping the use of Native American imagery, a compromise worked out in recent decades by other Massachusetts towns, such as Dedham and Wellesley, and dozens more communities around the United States.
High school students see that as a viable choice, said Matt Boland, a junior.
"People don't want to offend anyone," he said, "but they do want to keep the name."
Erica Noonan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.