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Is it possible "Indians" isn't so offensive after all?

It is quite possible that while the Cleveland Indians recently decided to change their nickname to the "Guardians" out of respect to Native Americans, the Montville Indians will remain the Montville Indians.

As that sage Vinny Barbarino used to say: "I'm so confused."

Montville superintendent of schools Laurie Pallin told The Day's Johana Vazquez last week the same thing in an e-mail that she wrote to me a few months back: Discussions are ongoing between the town and the Mohegan Tribe about the nickname, after a recently passed budget bill would withhold $1.4 million in funding for use of a Native American-related name — unless tribes in question allow written permission.

Sources in the Montville school system and political structure said last week they believe discussions have been cordial and productive and that the "Indians" nickname will likely stay, despite how other school systems — Guilford and North Haven, which were once "Indians" — have changed their nicknames in recent months.

Last year in a statement to The Day, Mohegan chief Lynn Malerba wrote, "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. There has been open dialogue between the Mohegan Tribe and school administrators intermittently regarding this issue."

Not long before that, however, Malerba told The Day: "It is the position of the Mohegan Tribe that the use of American Indian mascots and American Indian named teams be discontinued. 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."

Clarity from all sides would be helpful here. I do not presume any expertise in this matter. I am not Native American. Hence, I defer to their opinions and traditions. I respect, for example, that while the Seminole Tribe likes the Seminole mascot at Florida State, other tribes bristle at the use of other Native American mascots.

I also believe that defenders of the status quo and their "what about tradition?" argument need a course in remedial humanity. "Tradition" doesn't beget decency.  One of the things that amuses me about our country: The number of people who have never been part of a minority anything — and have a hard time tolerating people who are — who still influence public opinion and policy. Everything they say is substantiated by nothing more than their own opinions. And yet we entertain them as if there's some educational and cultural value to their whims.

Malerba makes sense when she says the word "Indian" is not in and of itself derogatory, certainly not like "Redskins" and "Redmen." Montville schools and the Mohegan Tribe have a chance here to truly educate the public on an issue that's nuanced.

It is reasonable for well-meaning people to wonder why the Cleveland Indians, Guilford Indians and North Haven Indians changed their mascots and nicknames — and why Montville might remain the Indians. I do not mean that as a criticism. It's an opportunity to educate those of us who are willing to close our mouths and open our minds to learn about a topic that's a bit confusing.

For now, though, at last there's this: Productive dialogue between the tribe and the town. Sure beats the disgrace in Killingly, where some Board of Education members upholding "tradition" have yet to return an e-mail or a phone call on the matter to your humble narrator. Amazing how so many other school systems have changed their ways. But they just know more than everyone else in Killingly, apparently.

Here's hoping Montville and the Mohegans not only agree soon, but take the opportunity to explain why. Surely, there's a segment of our society whose agendas don't allow for new evidence and changing circumstances. But the rest of us would be interested as to why.

This is the opinion of Day sports columnist Mike DiMauro


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