Push against Native American logos, team names reopens question in Montville

Montville — With Connecticut lawmakers considering discussion of legislation forbidding Native American logos, mascots and related team names from public high schools, Montville High School and other schools face the question once again: Should they continue with American Indian titles and emblems, or should they change course?

Every few years, public debate over using names for high school teams such as "Indians," "Warriors," "Chiefs," etc., as well as accompanying typecast logos, resumes in the state. Proponents of keeping Native American iconography argue they preserve school tradition and honor Native American history in the state.

Detractors say such mascots are racist and, at best, ignorant and insensitive.

Nineteen public high schools in the state, including Montville's, currently use Native American logos, mascots or nicknames. Montville High School, home of the Indians, uses a logo with feathers hanging off a large "M."

Speaker of the state House Joe Aresimowicz, D-Berlin, said he wants at least a discussion, and possibly a bill introduced, regarding action against towns that decide to keep such Native American imagery and labels. One step could be withholding state funds.

The idea is at its beginning stages and there hasn't been a caucus about it yet.

"We have a lot of Native American tribes here in the state of Connecticut, and we need to hear from them," Aresimowicz said. "Many towns say they're fine with it, it's a term of respect, then we hear from Native American organizations and they say, 'Absolutely not, we don't want it at all.'"

Maine, California, Massachusetts and Oregon have passed variations of a measure banning Native American mascots and the like in public schools and colleges.

Aresimowicz was inspired by the controversy in Killingly, which has made national news, about its high school "Redmen" and "Redgals." The situation reached a crescendo this month, when town officials reversed a 2019 decision to change the name to the Redhawks. This action was the result of Republican Board of Education and Town Council members running for office on the promise of restoring the old names, and winning.

"Just because this conversation is difficult doesn't mean we shouldn't have it," Aresimowicz said.

In a statement on Wednesday from the Killingly Education Association, which is the teachers' union for the town's public schools, President Nichola Able blasted the BOE's choice to revert to the school's original team name.

"This decision runs contrary to what we teach our students about the importance of inclusion, respect for each other, and living in a civil society," the statement read.

The Day's sports department made an editorial decision to refer to Killingly only as "Killingly" in its stories, avoiding the controversial monikers.

Montville revisits the question

In 2002, The Day reported that members of the Mohegan Tribe understood why Native Americans are offended by team logos, names and mascots that employ stereotypical images of braves, chiefs or "redskins," "but they don't mind that their hometown team is called the Indians." Late tribal member Michael Cooney designed Montville High School's original logo in the early 1960s — a male American Indian in eastern woodland headdress, which was discontinued in favor of the school's current logo in 2013.

"People get upset, but we laugh," former Tribal Chairman Mark F. Brown said at the time. "That's who we are."

On Tuesday, Mohegan Chief Marilynn Malerba emailed a statement to The Day discussing the tribe's special relationship with the town and its high school. She was speaking on behalf of herself, the tribal council, elected tribal elders and the medicine woman.

"In 1965 when Montville High School was built, the school leaders decided to name the high school teams 'The Indians' and indeed the sign on the property at the school says 'Montville High School, Home of the Indians,'" Malerba wrote. "During that time period, it was a way to recognize the history of the Tribe and the town that now occupies former Mohegan lands. Tribal citizens have always lived in what is now known as Montville and over time, came to live side by side with their non-native neighbors. This shared history is one of cooperation and mutual respect."

Malerba went on to recognize the many places in town with tribal names, "again in recognition of the first peoples of this town," including Uncasville, a part of town named after 17th-century Chief Uncas, who founded the Mohegan Tribe. She also pointed to Mohegan, a part of town encompassing the tribe's traditional homelands; the Uncasville School; the Mohegan School, built on traditional homelands and named after the tribe; Fort Shantok, named after the tribe's traditional village, and several streets named after tribal figures: Occum Lane, Teecomwas Drive, Fielding Terrace, Fielding Drive and Fowler Drive.

Both Malerba and Montville Schools Superintendent Laurie Pallin noted how the schools and the tribe work together "to protect against the name of the school and the mascot being used in a derogatory fashion," as Malerba put it.

"The term 'Indians' in and of itself is not derogatory or inflammatory. In this instance it is simply recognition of the first inhabitants of this land," Malerba wrote. "There has been open dialogue between the Mohegan Tribe and school administrators intermittently regarding this issue."

Pallin said she is eager to reopen the issue with the tribe.

"Montville Public Schools has communicated in the past with the Mohegan tribe about our teams' identity as the Montville Indians and creation of a logo which is a dignified symbol of our identity," Pallin wrote in a statement. "We have both viewed our identity as a sign of our combined history, mutual respect and continued collaboration. I have reached out through our Athletic Director to Chuck Bunnell (Chief of Staff for the Mohegan tribe) to indicate our openness to continued dialogue on the topic."

Despite the history and apparent respect between the tribe and the school, Malerba was clear about the tribe's stance regarding Native American names and mascots.

"It is the position of the Mohegan Tribe that the use of American Indian mascots and American Indian named teams be discontinued," she wrote. "While the stated intent may be to 'honor' American Indians, there is great potential for less than respectful behaviors to occur in conjunction with these mascots."

State Rep. Christine Palm, D-Chester, represents a district with Valley Regional High School, home of the Warriors, which has seen a recent effort from current and former students as well as parents to change its name and logo, which is strikingly similar to Montville High School's original logo.

While Palm generally supports ridding Connecticut schools of stereotypical Native American images and names, she also voiced concern about a ban.

"There are two key questions here: If government steps in with regulations, is the greater good being served? And are we violating anyone's First Amendment rights to free speech?" Palm asked. "I'm glad the students and administration at Valley Regional are engaged in a meaningful conversation, which was prompted by a petition started by some alumni. Ultimately, I hope the Region 4 Board of Education listens to them. I hope Deep River, Chester and Essex can recognize that younger people are not OK with cultural stereotypes, and that our towns should remain welcoming and inclusive."

Malerba explained why she says such labeling from schools is offensive.

"People should not be considered mascots. It is demeaning to be relegated to a stereotyping of a people," she wrote. "This should not be allowed to continue. It is a bit ironic that during the formulation of the United States, native people were forced to assimilate, not allowed to practice their traditional dress or way of life and yet cultural appropriation continues to occur with regard to sports teams and their mascots."

s.spinella@theday.com

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