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UPDATED: Budget bill would withhold money from towns with Native American-related mascots

Though much of an 837-page “budget implementer” bill the legislature is scheduled to vote on during special session concerns the implementation of a bipartisan state budget, it also contains a host of unrelated provisions.

Those include initiatives regarding labor, business, education, health care and other matters. Several aspects of the legislation in particular carry implications for southeastern Connecticut. The Senate passed the measure 23-7.

One of the provisions stipulates that municipalities with schools that still have Native American-related mascots would lose funding. Cities and towns have until June 2024 to inform the state Office of Policy and Management of intent to change the names and mascots, or get permission from tribes to keep them. Otherwise, the municipalities will lose funding starting in June 2023.

Funding from the Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan Fund is at stake. According to the bill, “no municipality shall be paid a grant from the Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan Fund ... if a school under the jurisdiction of the board of education for such municipality, or an intramural or interscholastic athletic team associated with such school, uses any name, symbol or image that depicts, refers to or is associated with a state or federally recognized Native American tribe or a Native American individual, custom or tradition, as a mascot, nickname, logo or team name.”

But, if schools have written consent from a recognized tribe within its region to use such iconography, they are off the hook. Written consent can include a tribal council resolution, an agreement between a tribal government and town or a tribal-government-endorsed statement of consent.

Montville High School, known as the “Indians” and bearing a Native American-related logo, would qualify for written consent under the definition. Early on in 2020, Connecticut lawmakers considered discussion of legislation forbidding Native American logos, mascots and related team names from public high schools.

Every few years, public debate over using names for high school teams such as "Indians," "Warriors," "Chiefs," etc., as well as accompanying 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.

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.

Last year, in a statement to The Day, Mohegan Chief Marilynn Malerba discussed 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."

In a statement on Tuesday, state Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, noted how towns with offensive high school team nicknames or mascots are still sent money from the state through the Pequot fund.

"Towns around this state have been told year after year by Connecticut's Native American tribes that their nicknames and mascots are horribly offensive. Some towns have taken the proper steps to change, while others continue to ignore common decency and continue to disrespect our tribal partners who were here long, long before any city or town was ever incorporated," Osten said. "If certain cities and towns won't listen to their fellow citizens, then they can certainly do without the tribal money that they are showing such disrespect toward."

Former Norwich State Hospital

The implementer bill also includes language that would allow Preston to resume the cleanup of the former Norwich Hospital property. For months, the state Department of Economic and Community Development insisted that a $2 million loan the town took out in recent years be used before a $7 million state grant. Preston and the Mohegan Tribe wanted to use the state grant first in hopes that the entire $9 million wouldn’t be needed for the project, and the town’s share could be preserved.

Preston town officials have been negotiating with the DECD for several months over whether the state grant, approved by the Bond Commission last July, could be spent before the loan. Language in the state budget implementer bill clarifies that the state money will be used first.

“We’re very pleased that the legislature supported us in taking this action,” Preston Redevelopment Agency Chairman Sean Nugent said Tuesday, “and it puts us a step closer to starting up again with the cleanup.”

As Democrats said it would be, Senate Bill 5 is in the implementer bill, as well. Like the recreational cannabis bill, this voting rights bill was passed by the Senate but went uncalled in the House. Championed by Secretary of the State Denise Merrill, it would make voting drop boxes a permanent fixture rather than merely a stopgap measure due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it would allow people on parole to register and vote, and it would expand on an automatic voter registration program run through the DMV and other state agencies.

A surprise, though: the implementer bill includes language that would establish a pilot program “for the manual or electronic verification of signatures on the inner envelopes for returned absentee ballots at the 2022 state election. Merrill as well as House Speaker Matt Ritter have said they’re opposed to such a measure. Republicans support it.

The implementer bill also outlines funding for fire companies in distressed municipalities. Starting this upcoming fiscal year, “the State Fire Administrator shall award a grant to any distressed municipality with a volunteer fire department for the purposes of covering costs related to the provision of Firefighter I certification and recruit training for volunteer firefighters at regional fire schools,” the text reads.

On Tuesday, state Sen. Craig Miner, R-Litchfield, expressed anger about the number of proposals unrelated to the budget that were in the bill. Senate Minority Leader Kevin Kelly, R-Stratford, had similar concerns, namely that his caucus saw the bill for the first time only hours before Tuesday’s special session. He said he didn’t think the bill was filled with extra materials as a way of paying back Republicans for threatening to filibuster the marijuana bill on the House floor during regular session.

s.spinella@theday.com

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