Business & Economy

Mascoma Bank to drop Native American logo

Mascoma Bank mural

A 22-foot-long painting by Bernard Chapman hanging in the Mascoma Savings Bank Operations Center in White River Junction depicts the artist’s vision of Squakheag Chief Mascommah and is the source for the bank’s current logo. The image will be phased out over the next three years after a new logo for the bank is unveiled in March. Photo-illustration by James M. Patterson/Valley News

This story by John Lippman was published in the Valley News Feb. 25, 2018.

LEBANON — Centuries after he is believed to have lived and more than 50 years after he was adopted as the symbol of Mascoma Bank, Chief Mascommah will disappear from the Upper Valley.

The Lebanon mutual bank will no longer use as its logo an image that depicts the chief of the Squakheag Native American tribe spearfishing from a canoe.

The change accompanies an across-the-board program to update Mascoma Bank’s marketing materials that will encompass a newly designed abstract logo and color scheme.

The aim is to position the bank as a certified “B Corporation” emphasizing Mascoma’s social responsibility and commitment to the community.

A silhouette of Chief Mascommah, whose Squakheag tribe was part of the Abenaki nation, has been Mascoma Bank’s logo since the 1960s.

Mascoma Bank

A silhouette of Chief Mascommah, the leader of the Squakheag Native American tribe, has been a part of Mascoma Bank’s logo since the 1960s and is being phased out. Photo courtesy Mascoma Bank

The image was adapted from scenes representing Lebanon’s past in a mural painted by the landscape painter Bernard F. Chapman that once hung in Lebanon City Hall, but now resides at the bank’s operations center in White River Junction.

Mascoma’s decision to drop the logo comes as both U.S. corporations and national sports teams have increasingly come under fire for the use of names, mascots and logos depicting, sometimes in cartoon fashion, Native Americans. The Cleveland Indians announced last month that they would drop the “Chief Wahoo” logo from uniforms in 2019 — although teams such as the Washington Redskins and Atlanta Braves have steadfastly refused to change their names despite widespread calls from Native American organizations.

Although the bank said it was not changing its logo in response to specific protests, it nonetheless realized that images that stirred little or no controversy in one era might be viewed in a different light in another.

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“When Chief Mascommah was designed back in the 1960s, it was done with utmost respect for the man who had a big impact on the heritage of this area,” said Samantha Pause, senior vice president of marketing, sales and service at Mascoma Bank. “But times change and we are aware of that.”

Corporate brand logos and trademarks that seemed innocuous even a few years ago today can appear insensitive and even unwittingly reinforce negative cultural stereotypes, explained Diane Devine, a lecturer in marketing at the University of New Hampshire’s Peter T. Paul College of Business and Economics in Durham.

She said that even if the brand’s Native American logo is meant to convey such values as courage, strength and honesty — and therefore benefit from the association — inheritors of that culture don’t necessarily see it that way and instead can feel their heritage is being taken advantage of for marketing purposes.

“You might think it isn’t exploitative, but it can fuel cultural bias even when it is artfully done,” said Devine, who owns a firm that consults Fortune 500 companies on branding issues and identity. “Given all the cultural appropriation issues, I think (changing the logo) is a good thing.”

Information about the historical figure identified as Chief Mascommah is sketchy.

The Lebanon Historical Society, relying on research provided by the late Gordon M. Day, a Dartmouth College scholar on New England Native American culture and history, identified Mascommah as a Native American chief who controlled hunting grounds and fishing waters of the Connecticut River and its tributary the Mascoma River in what is today’s Upper Valley.

“Mascommah was a Squakheag Indian whose last historic village was located at what is now Northfield, Mass., although the tribe’s lands stretched far up the Connecticut River. The Indians had abandoned living in the upper Connecticut Valley perhaps sixty years or more before the first white settlers arrived but is still ancestral territory to them,” the historical society wrote in an explanation posted on the bank’s website.

The new logo — which the bank is not making public ahead of its official debut next week — was designed by the Burlington graphic design firm Solidarity of Unbridled Labour and features a geometric pattern that is “inspired” by the canoe in the old logo and replaces the single forest green color with a palette of bright green, blue, orange and purple shades, Pause said.

Pause said the adoption of a multi-color scheme is designed to represent the “diversity of markets, products and services” the bank offers, as well customers it serves. The new presentation is also meant to reflect the “new vision and new direction” of the bank under Chief Executive Officer and President Clay Adams, the former chief executive of Simon Pearce who took the reins at the bank from longtime CEO Stephen Christy nearly 14 months ago.

In the past year, Mascoma changed its name to Mascoma Bank from Mascoma Savings Bank as it switched its charter from federal supervision to the state level. Earlier this month, it agreed to sell its in-house life insurance agency, Centurion Insurance Group — which it acquired only a few years earlier — to The Richards Group because it decided the agency wasn’t central to the bank’s core business.

Besides projecting a “more contemporary look,” the marketing makeover is meant to signal that Mascoma Bank is adapting to the broader changes that small banks everywhere face in the digital age, when customers can bypass their local community bank to get a mortgage from a “fintech” company via their smartphone, use paperless electronic banking instead of written checks and mailed statements, and replace cash and credit cards with “digital wallets” such as Apple Pay and Google Pay.

Devine, the UNH marketing lecturer, noted that how Mascoma “makes the transition to the new logo will be critical because of the brand equity (the bank) has been built up since 1899. They will want to make sure consumers are not alienated. There are so many brands that have done that.”

She noted “retaining some of the heritage” in the new logo, such as the reference to the canoe in the stylized graphic, “helps to maintain some brand equity.”

Toward that end, Pause’s team has been quietly showing the new logo to Upper Valley clients in recent months to gauge reaction.

Pause said that the public will be introduced to the logo and marketing changes in a phased-in process, beginning with a partial redesign of the bank’s website that will appear on March 1 followed by a full redesign in the fall. Outdoor and indoor signs will change gradually at the bank’s 26 locations over a three-year period, with the first occurring at Walpole, N.H., because of a current renovation project.

Perhaps not unexpectedly, some don’t see the need for the bank to replace its widely recognized logo of Chief Mascommah, especially one that is so identified with Upper Valley history.

“It’s ridiculous, everyone is so easily offended now,” said Ed Ashey, curator of the Lebanon Historical Society. “I think they are doing the wrong thing by taking it off. It’s nothing derogatory.”

Ashey credits seeing the image of the Native American that was once a mascot of Dartmouth’s sports teams — the college dropped the mascot in the 1970s — with sparking his interest in learning about the Abenaki when he was young (Lebanon High School dropped “Agamek,” a fictional Native American, as its mascot in 2001, although the image continues to appear on alumni association merchandise). And Ashey said what he learned instilled a deep respect for Native Americans as well as awareness and horror over what they suffered at the hands of European settlers.

“That’s when I dug into it myself and read histories about them,” he said. “The schools were teaching us garbage, and it wasn’t long before I found out how they died of disease, were enslaved and slaughtered.”

But Roger Longtoe Sheehan, chief of the Elnu Abenaki Tribe, to which the Squakheags were related, said that even though he personally had no issue with the Chief Mascommah logo, he nonetheless thought it was a wise move on the bank’s part to relegate it to history.

Sheehan, who lives in Jamaica, Vt., and makes Native American crafts, said that the bank — true to its mission as a steward of people’s money — is simply lowering its risk profile.

“It’s a smart thing to do because this way you don’t get your chops busted in the future,” he said.

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