CALDWELL/WEST CALDWELL, NJ — The Board of Education held a virtual public meeting on Wednesday but first held a private executive session to meet with a candidate for the high school vice principal position that was recently vacated by newly appointed John Bertollo who is now the principal of Grover Cleveland Middle School. The board during public session voted to unanimously approve to appoint Amanda Leach, Vice Principal of James Caldwell High School, effective September 14, 2020 to June 30, 2021 (or sooner if released from her current district).
Public comment for non-agenda items began with Caldwell Mayor John Kelley stating that he was contacted by residents who were not supportive of the continued use of long time “Chiefs” mascot for the school district. Kelley noted that after his discussion with Superintendent Dr. James Heinegg, that the board of education will be discussing and reviewing the request during their retreat in August but wished to read a prepared statement.
Kelley’s statement in part began by asserting that “we are in the midst of the largest civil rights movement in history, and it is a critical moment of reflection and action as a Borough. We need to re-examine our role in perpetuating systemic racism. Statues, flags, symbols, and mascots hold power in celebrating and memorializing truth, justice, and equity. Unfortunately the Caldwell Chief’s name and mascot do not uphold any of these tenents rather the mascot dehumanizes indigenous people and reduces them to caricatures and costumes….I have received testimonies from residents of indigenous descent who feel that the Chiefs mascot does not celebrate their history. It is offensive and insensitive to the atrocities that indigenous people have faced and continue to face in our nation. I wholeheartedly agree with these residents sentiment and I want to ensure that Caldwell is a place of inclusivity and safety for all people.”
Resident Jonathan Hawk spoke in favor of changing the mascot. Hawk identified himself as a Native American who lives a traditional Choctaw life. He said he spends a lot of his time with other Choctaws as he travels around the country videotaping for his YouTube channel. He referenced the Washington Redskins football team name change and Black Lives Matter movement is “putting together a change in momentum.”
Hawk a resident of Caldwell for 16 years stated that there “are not many Native people in this town and I think I only met one Lakota woman here in Caldwell.” Hawk noted that there were “petitions going on all over the country about Mascots and that organizations are coming together and they’re beginning to identify communities that continue to perpetrate reducing the native people to mascots.” Hawk referenced the Wayne Valley School District currently has a petition before it to change their mascot as well. He cautioned that he did not believe that Caldwell should be the “last community in the state to have people identify you as insensitive…I would hate to see the town get a reputation of being insensitive and I reached out to Mayor Kelley to express my concerns.”
Dan Romano, the school district’s Athletic Director and a 62-year resident of the borough was in attendance and spoke on the topic. He began by noting “I really welcome the opportunity to talk abut this because the last thing we want to be as a town and as a school district is insensitive and that is nowhere close to where we’re at”. Romano then went on to discuss the history of the “Chiefs” stating it had “little or nothing to do with Native Americans.”
Harris “Chief” Bonnel was the Athletic Director for the district from 1934-1975, inducted into Caldwell Athletic Hall of Fame in 1990 and most recently had a plaque honoring him installed at Legends Park at the Bonnel Field in September 2019, was the inspiration for the mascot name. Romano referenced an historical perspective stating that in the late 1930s Coach Bonnel brought in a Native American tribe that came to the borough for a number of days and had camped out for a few nights at the high school as they gave talks and demonstrations about the Native American way of life. During closing ceremonies, the Native Americans “bestowed on Harris Bonnel the title of ‘Chief’”. As Romano continued he stated that as time went on the teams were nicknamed “Chief’s baseball, Chief’s basketball” and eventually all of the teams in the district were knowns as “Chief’s team” noting that there were no references of Native Americans until the early 1960s when the cheerleaders had pictures taken of them wearing headdresses with a feather and eventually a logo of a chief’s head was then added to their skirt. The football helmets began to carry the logo during the early 1970s. They were known as the War Bonnet or chief head in 1974 and became an arrowhead in the early 1980s. Romano concluded his remarks stating that the “chiefs are about 80 years old and has little or nothing to do with Native Americans and that this was strictly to honor a great man and a great coach”. He noted that when Bonnel began in 1934 the district had two teams and upon his retirement in 1975 there were then 19 teams in the district.
Council President Christine Schmidt also on the call remarked that “things have changed since the 60s and things do need to change.” She thanked Romano for his historical perspective and suggested that going back to the big letter “C” would remove the “offensive” and we can continue to honor Coach Bonnel. I think there are ways to get around this while still being respectful of indigenous people.” She continued “I think this is something that needs a lot of work in our school system being a mom of two children of color myself, their experience has been less than ideal, so I feel strongly that we need to make this change.”
Councilman Jonathan Lace who was in attendance concurred with his colleagues and stated “I think it would be appropriate to consider changing the logo of the mascot because the logo very much has to do with Native Americans and I agree with Council President Schmidt that perhaps the name can be retained and perhaps this can be an opportunity to educate the public about the name and why its called the Chiefs and not use the headdress as our mascot logo.”
Board of Education President Marie Lanfrank questioned Kelley has to how many citizens reached out to him on the issue and Kelley responded he had heard from two residents. Lanfrank then noted that the community has 8,000 residents. Kelley asked later about the question surrounding the support, “would that matter how you respond to racism?”
The other board members offered no comments, neither did Dr. Heinegg so there was no public discussion about how the potential change would impact the district’s budget for the purchases of new equipment and uniforms that currently bear the logo in question if the board ultimately decided to change the logo.