A 1934 edition of “The Sagamore,” which introduced misleading Indigenous imagery at the center of the name.
Changing our 130-year-old name
This article was reviewed by newspaper staff and represents a paper-wide point of view.
In 2013, the newspaper staff published a statement on the meaning of the word “Sagamore.” To the 2013-14 staff, “the story of how the first staff chose to name it ‘The Sagamore’ remain[ed] a mystery.” More recently, we uncovered clues as to how the name was selected. This sparked an investigation into the impact using the name has today.
We have decided to change the name of the newspaper out of respect for Indigenous peoples. Continuing to use the name actively disregards the meaning of the word and the history that surrounds it, thereby harming Indigenous communities.
The word “Sagamore” denotes an important leader of some New England Indigenous tribes. The current Sagamore of the Massachusett Tribe at Ponkapoag, Faries Gray, said the traditional role of a Sagamore was to protect their people in conflict. Gray said the role of a Sagamore looks different in modern times.
“What that means for us today is protection of our territory from being developed. It’s like a protector. It’s a responsibility,” Gray said. “It’s my duty to protect our people, our territory and our culture. For me, that name means a tremendous amount of responsibility.”
This article is divided into three sections. In the first, we talk about the history of the Massachusett people. In the second, we discuss the newspaper’s use of the word “Sagamore” and its connection to a negative history. Finally, we reflect on recent conversations with Indigenous people that have helped us understand the current impact of using the name “The Sagamore.”
This marks the first time our newspaper has changed its name since its founding in 1893, 130 years ago.
According to the Massachusett Tribe website, their homelands stretch from modern Salem to Plymouth, along the coast and inland as far as Worcester. The Brookline land acknowledgment recognizes the Massachusett people as the original occupants of Brookline.
The Massachusett people
Before English colonialism took hold in the early 1600s, the Massachusett Tribe lived in what is now the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. According to the Massachusett Tribe website, their homelands stretch from modern Salem to Plymouth, along the coast and inland as far as Worcester. The Massachusett Tribe was divided into smaller bands, including the Neponset band, later renamed to the Ponkapoag.
To understand the implications of our newspaper’s use of the word “Sagamore,” it is important to first understand the identity and story of the Massachusett people, the original occupants of the land that is now Brookline.
According to the Massachusett Tribe website, women of the tribe gathered grains, greens and firewood, built shelters, wove baskets and influenced tribal decision-making. Men hunted, fished, whaled, mined and protected the tribe’s people and territory.
According to Gray, historically there have been three types of leaders within the Massachusett Tribe.
“We have a Sac’hem [primary leader]. We have a Powwow or Powwusk, which is a medicine man and medicine woman. And then we would have our Sagamore. And the Sagamore in our traditional times was the war chief,” Gray said.
According to Gray, the Sac’hem and Sagamore could sometimes be the same person, especially when the Sac’hem was a warrior. Gray said a tribe would only have all three types of leaders if necessary. Today, several Indigenous groups in the area have a Sac’hem and a Powwow or Powwusk, but Sagamores are less common.
Gray said that historically, leadership has been passed down through bloodlines, but an emphasis is placed on having strong leadership abilities.
“If you were not leadership material, the people wouldn’t follow you,” Gray said. “You were pretty much taught how to be a leader, you were cultivated into that role, even as a child. But that’s not set in stone. Sometimes the people wouldn’t follow a specific leader and they would choose a new leader. The people always held all the power.”
The arrival of English settlers led to the near destruction of the Massachusett Tribe and their ways of life. At the time of their arrival, Chickataubut was the tribe’s Sac’hem.
In 1623, English military officer Myles Standish led an attack at Wessagusset, now Weymouth. Standish and his troops massacred Chickataubut’s strongest warriors. This led to the union of local Indigenous tribes in defense against the English.
According to Gray, Standish was also sent to meet with the Sagamore at the time.
“Plymouth [Colony] sent Myles Standish to meet with our Sagamore in the 1600s, and he killed our Sagamore, cut off our Sagamore’s head and took that head back to Plymouth, where it hung on a stake for 20 years,” Gray said. “That’s a pretty good reason for the dominant culture to not use ‘Sagamore.’”
In 1638, an allocation of land known as the “great allotments” began in which English settlers distributed plots of Indigenous-inhabited land among themselves.
In “History of Brookline,” published in 1933, author John Gould Curtis said settlers would “parcel out the land to persons who were deserving, and whose employment of their grants would redound to the benefit of the group as a whole. The selectmen had virtually a free hand, at least so far as the selection of the lands was concerned.”
By the late 1640s, the English outnumbered the Neponset band of the Massachusett Tribe and forced them to relocate to Ponkapoag, modern-day Canton, and the surrounding area.
According to Massachusett Tribe Treasurer Elizabeth Solomon, with this relocation, the Neponsets were renamed the Ponkapoags, as the English gave Indigenous bands of the Massachusett Tribe their names based on where they resided.
After the relocation to Ponkapoag, English Reverend and Christian missionary John Eliot established Ponkapoag as a praying town, according to the Massachusett Tribe website. The English created “praying towns” to convert Indigenous people to Christianity and pressure them to adopt English customs. Praying towns were established in New England from the mid-1640s to the mid-1670s.
In 1869, Massachusetts passed an Act of Enfranchisement that made all Indigenous people citizens, effectively removing their right to separate tribal lands.
Gray said he wants people who may be resistant to the newspaper name change to remember the colonization of the Massachusett people.
“Indigenous people here were murdered, we were assimilated, we were stripped of everything that we were,” Gray said. “We were held into prison camps. We were cut off from our resources, separated from our families. All the nastiest things in humanity were done to us.”
The Massachusett Tribe Today
The Massachusett Tribe has maintained many aspects of their culture including the tradition of oral storytelling, ritual dance and forms of medicine dating back thousands of years, according to their website.
Many tribe members still live in Southeastern Massachusetts. The tribe is governed by a tribal council and board of directors.
“We’re tied to the land,” Solomon said.
Today, Sagamore Gray focuses on protecting natural land from development and educating non-Indigenous communities on harmful practices. The latter has largely taken the form of working with schools and organizations in the state to change Indigenous mascots. For example, Gray was part of the effort to change the Braintree mascot.
“Braintree is the Wamps and that’s after Wampatuck, one of our leaders. They changed the imagery, but they wanted to keep the name ‘Wamps,’ which is still unacceptable to us, so we have more work to do there,” Gray said. “I think a lot of people will stand by the name longer than they’ll stand by the imagery.”
Gray said other cultures are not appropriated for names and mascots as frequently as Indigenous communities.
“There is no other race where that is acceptable, in this country, except for the Indigenous community,” Gray said.
Issues of this newspaper included stereotypical Indigenous imagery. Chair of the Hidden Brookline Committee Barbara Brown said Massachusett people do not wear the headdresses depicted
in these images.
Our history with the word “Sagamore”
In 2020, the newspaper’s faculty advisers suggested digging deeper into the origins of our name. 2020-21 Longform Managing Editor Graham Krewinghaus led a process of research which has brought us to our position today.
Until March, 1934, issues of our newspaper included a 1632 quote from Massachusetts Governor John Winthrop’s journal printed on the first page, directly underneath the name: “there being ten Sagamores and many Indians at Muddy River.”
This quote is part of a larger journal passage: “Notice being given of ten Sagamores and many Indians being assembled at Muddy River, the Governor sent Capt. Underhill with twenty musketeers to make discoveries, but at Roxbury, they heard that they were broken up.”
Captain Underhill led the colonial militia during the Pequot War. Underhill was responsible for the mass murder of Indigenous people, according to the New England Historical Society.
If Underhill had encountered Indigenous people at Muddy River, our town may have been “destined to be called ‘Bloody Brook,’” as Robert Winthrop said in an 1873 speech at proceedings for the dedication of Town Hall. The order Underhill received to “make discoveries” was a license to kill.
2020-21 Arts and Multimedia Managing Editor Aryn Lee said she was surprised when she read the 2013 statement defining “Sagamore.”
“The [statement] said we don’t want to be using the word blindly, and we want to respect and acknowledge the culture that it came from. But that’s not something we have ever really done [as a staff],” Lee said. “I had no awareness of the name of our newspaper and I think that was the case for most people.”
With efforts to continue this research led by 2021-22 Longform Managing Editor Rowan Roudebush, last year our staff was able to make further research developments on how “The Sagamore” might have been chosen as the name of the newspaper.
President of the Brookline Historical Society Ken Liss helped us discover the possible connection between our name and The Improved Order of Red Men, a national fraternal organization.
Officially established in 1834, the Improved Order of Red Men is descended from colonial patriotic organizations, including the Sons of Liberty. Originally exclusive to white men, the organization appropriates Indigenous customs, clothing and terminology. “Sagamore” is one of the Indigenous terms the organization uses to indicate rank. The organization still exists today, with several chapters across the country.
Arthur W. Spencer, the first editor-in-chief of “The Sagamore,” was the son of Charles A.W. Spencer, the assistant chief of records of Brookline’s chapter of The Improved Order of Red Men.
This discovery was a turning point for our staff. After discussions regarding the history of our name, our staff voted to change the name in the spring of 2022. Beginning in the summer of 2022, our staff worked to initiate conversations with local Indigenous people and experts on Indigenous history to understand the modern-day impact of our use of the word “Sagamore.”
It is past time to move away from being named “The Sagamore.”
Reggi Alkiewicz is a member of the Nunatsiavut Government from Labrador, Canada, and serves as a Civic Engagement Coordinator for the Native American Indian Center of Boston. Alkiewicz helped our staff connect with members of the Massachusett Tribe at Ponkapoag. Alkiewicz said using the name “The Sagamore” is harmful to Indigenous people today because the newspaper has no connection to Indigenous culture.
“This name is inappropriate and cannot be used,” Alkiewicz said in a conversation with staff. “The term Sagamore is a term of honor. It is a chief term. Your newspaper has no commitment to Indigenous people.”
Sagamore Gray said Indigenous mascots and names like “The Sagamore” remind him of this country’s brutal history of violence towards Indigenous people.
“When I see a school that has [us as their] mascot, honestly, I just feel like we’re trophies. They look at us like we are a trophy. Like, ‘look at this savage that we conquered.’ They’re not viewing us as human beings,” Gray said.
Gray is no stranger to pushback on these kinds of initiatives. He encourages those who may be hesitant to try to understand the perspective of Indigenous people.
“We just ask people to have some empathy and to have some heart and to try to have some understanding of what it is that the Indigenous people here went through and continue to go through. Sometimes that has to sit with people and fester, so they can absorb exactly what it is they’re telling them, but” Gray said. “Most people have the ability to reflect and so we just ask them to reflect a little bit on what it is we’re asking them to change.”
Some staff wondered if the name “The Sagamore” could continue to be used in a way that honors and respects the title. J. Cedric Woods is the director of the Institute for New England Native American Studies at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. Woods said the name could not be used to honor Indigenous people because the meaning of the word has no correlation to a newspaper.
“I don’t advocate for changing names of towns that are using the Indigenous name of that place. I think changing the name actually erases Indigenous presence,” Woods said. “But for a newspaper, I would step back and say, ‘Well, let’s set aside whether it’s the Native name or not. What’s the role of the paper? And does that name make sense?’ To me, I don’t see the connection between the name ‘Sagamore’ and a newspaper.”
Gray said our name change should be used as an opportunity to educate the community on the history of the Massachusett people. Articles such as this one are part of our ongoing effort to expand our coverage of Indigenous voices and be attentive to Indigenous communities.
“You’re not just changing a name, you’re changing minds,” Gray said.
Our newspaper aims to be a source of unbiased and relevant news for the school community. We hope to represent the community fairly and accurately. With these values in mind, a name like “The Sagamore” does not make sense. It does not symbolize who we are and it actively counteracts our goal to make all people feel heard and represented on the pages of our paper.
As the newspaper moves toward a new name, we encourage you to think about the meaning of the word “Sagamore” and the title of honor it represents. Changing the name is an act of respect towards people and stories like that of Sagamore Faries Gray, to whom the title rightfully belongs.
Gray said he was chosen to be the Sagamore by a previous Sac’hem about 30 years ago. The Sac’hem’s recommendation was approved by the Tribal Council and Gray took on the daunting responsibility of the Sagamore from a young age.
“It probably chose me, rather than me choosing that as a role. It was just who I was,” Gray said. “Prior to being asked to be the Sagamore I was already the Sagamore. The title was with me always.”