Redmen retired, maybe

Group will press to keep nickname

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Michele Morgan Bolton
Globe Correspondent / June 22, 2008

Pamela Ellis wept openly last week at the School Committee's vote to retire the Redmen name for the school district's sports teams. But for the historian and genealogist on the Natick Nipmuc Council, they were not tears of joy.

Rather, she explained, it was a complicated emotional response to a story come full circle: beginning with the centuries-ago taking of ancestral lands in Natick and ending Monday with support from non-Native Americans to dissolve a painful, derogatory and embarrassing era in town history.

"This moment was also an important part of history," said Ellis, a lawyer and an authority on tribal affairs. "Sometimes in our nation we have longstanding injustices. Just because they endure for a long time doesn't make it right."

Ellis and others say the school panel's move to uphold last year's vote to dump the Redmen name was courageous and principled, after more than a year and a half of debate that often pitted neighbor against neighbor.

But others aren't satisfied with the move. And though school officials see their vote last week as the final chapter in a long and contentious story, others in town plan to keep the debate going.

Members of the group Redmen Forever are collecting signatures to place a binding referendum on the November ballot that would reverse last week's vote. Erich Thalheimer, a member of the group, said residents are being asked to either sign a petition being circulated in town or download paperwork from the organization's website,

The group was especially upset at last week's vote because in March some 65 percent of the 10,000 residents who cast votes on a nonbinding referendum said they thought the School Committee should rethink its decision last year.

"The people of Natick said, 'We heard you, we respect your opinion, but no thank you,' " said Thalheimer. "Now this needs to be turned back into" the voters' hands, he said. "Natick has been hijacked. And the name Redmen has been hijacked."

Redmen Forever cochairman James Brown said 2,400 signatures are needed to get the question on the ballot, something he said should be fairly easily done, considering the fallout since Monday's vote.

"It's interesting when you have an elected board, and they tell you what is better for you than what you believe," he said.

School Committee chairman Stephen Meyler said that the referendum sought a reconsideration of its decision last year, not a change in the committee's position or an endorsement of a specific nickname.

"We really did go through a long process to reconsider," he said. 'We reopened the discussion, held a public forum and received 12 inches thick of documents, e-mails, and letters that we all reviewed."

Meyler said he admires the passion and conviction of the Redmen Forever group, but his research showed that their plan for a binding referendum "does not have much legal merit."

Meyler said it is now up to the superintendent and the high school principal to decide what the nickname should be. He said it might be Red and Blue, a former nickname that won support from a special task force, or it could be something else.

But many believe any change would be unfortunate, including Natick Outdoor Store owner Henry Kanner, who has sold Redmen shirts, uniforms, and hats for 25 years. Calls have poured in from all over the country from people hoping to buy a memento from their youths, he said.

"This is something people are passionate about," said Kanner. "They are 50-, 60-, and 70-year-olds. And now they are pretty bummed out."

Generations of Redmen have graced Natick's fields, including Doug Flutie, one of the more famous native sons who went on to star as a Boston College and pro football quarterback. He expressed his feelings months ago that the historic name should remain as it is.

Thalheimer was Flutie's center on their 1970s football squad. Redmen was more than just a name, Thalheimer said. It represented a whole value system.

The district's interim superintendent, Joseph Keefe, said school officials went far and beyond to open the process to residents, and for more than 15 months people had their say in a civil and orderly way. After exhaustive research and discussion, he said, the board acted appropriately.

Firkins Reed agrees. She and her husband, Dennis Barr, helped lead a movement to remove the Redmen name. Now the pair believes it is time to find reconciliation and move on.

"We understand that the Redmen Forever group is disappointed and frustrated," Reed said. "They had tremendous loyalty to that name. But there is common ground we all share. We care about this town and the future. We all want to move forward in ways we can model for our children."

Barr said the March vote can be interpreted differently, making it hard to know how widespread support for the Redmen name really is.

"My guess is there's a huge middle ground who haven't paid that much attention."

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