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Acknowledging the past to shape a better future for Native American communities

While so many of us are looking forward to the stuffing, turkey, and seeing loved ones this Thanksgiving, it's also important to acknowledge the inaccuracies that generations have been taught about Native American history and the harm it inflicts.

It's particularly important in our state — one that is imbued in Native American history. In fact, Connecticut is an anglicized spelling of the Mohegan-Pequot word Quononoquett (Coanicut), which means "long tidal river."  Native American and indigenous history and culture are deeply embedded in Connecticut. While much of that history displays ugliness on behalf of colonists and the U.S. government, we have made great strides within the past century. But early last year, our state made national news when a town's local school board voted to reinstate an offensive Native American mascot after a public outcry. This moment was a wake-up call for us as state elected leaders to address the continued use of distasteful imagery that reinforces dangerous stereotypes based on myths about indigenous communities.

For much of our lives, my generation has grown up exposed to these unfitting symbols and mascots. My own alma mater, Manchester High School, utilized an offensive mascot up until a few years ago. I applaud them for having the courage to make this necessary change. It is long past time that we acknowledge the damage these symbols impose. There is a long history in the United States of attempts to eradicate and mute Native American cultures. The continued use of these offensive mascots not only mock Indigenous people and their culture but also reinforce stereotypes, creating harmful prejudices among non-Native persons. A study by the University of Michigan found that these mascots can cause psychological harm for Native American teenagers, decreasing their self-esteem and lowering their achievement-related goals.

Recognizing how harmful these stereotypes are, many states have or are attempting to enact legislation to ban Native American mascots and symbols outright. California did it first in 2015, and over the past two years, Maine, Nevada, Washington, and Colorado have passed similar legislation. Additionally, Massachusetts' Legislature has a bill up for consideration regarding the matter, and Kansas' Commission on Racial Equity and Justice recently submitted voluntary guidance that all schools should "review and eliminate" the use of Native American mascots, nicknames, or imagery. Many professional sports teams have also changed their names or logos, most recently the MLB's Cleveland Guardians and the NFL's Washington Football Team.

Here in Connecticut, there are consequences to using these symbols. Municipalities with school districts that continue to misuse Native American symbols are no longer eligible to receive funds from the Mashantucket Pequot/Mohegan Fund. This fund was created to direct state revenues generated from slot machines to cities and towns, sending more than $2.3 billion in grants to municipalities over the last 27 years.  A provision adopted in the latest State Budget requires that these funds be withheld from those cities and towns that wish to keep offensive imagery and symbols. Through conversations, I also understand that many communities use these symbols not to intentionally undermine Native American and indigenous communities, but because of the sentimental value, they feel they hold to the residents of that town or city. However, the continuation of these symbols only perpetuates a cycle of systemic racism. We must do better. We must decide to evolve as a community, learn from our mistakes and respectfully embrace all cultural symbols.

Our work continues both at home and nationally. The Chicago Black Hawks, the Kansas City Chiefs and the Atlanta Braves all remain sports teams that use Native American symbols and imagery.

A report released this past July from the National School Mascot Tracking Database, managed by the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI), found a total of 1,895 schools and 1,017 total school districts that have native "themed" mascots in the United States, despite the clear message from indigenous communities that these images are offensive and hurtful.

As we enter the holiday season, beginning with Thanksgiving, let us remain ever mindful of what we are grateful for and how we can continue to be thoughtful and compassionate neighbors within our communities. Let's continue the journey of being a nation and state that embraces our history, as well as the rich contributions of all communities, along our path of fulfilling the promise to form a more perfect Union. I wish you and your loved ones all — a healthy and safe Thanksgiving holiday

The writer is the Connecticut State Treasurer.

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