After several community members voiced concerns, a discussion about whether a change is due for Guilford High School’s nickname, the Indians, is on the horizon, officials said.
But even if the district does take action, at least 16 other high schools across the state are in similar situations.
Some of those schools have nicknames such as “the Indians,” “the Sachems” and “the Tomahawks.” Others have more ambiguous titles, including “the Warriors,” but imagery stereotypically associated with “Indians” appears in their logos or sports gear.
Representatives from the Native American community said the use of such names and symbols is hurtful, and that it perpetuates harmful stereotypes.
“They’re problematic because they dehumanize native people,” said Norman Clement, a Native American activist in the New Haven area.
Stereotypical images such as spears and tomahawks build a violent image of Native Americans, Clement said.
James Rawlings, former president of the Connecticut Native American Inter-Tribal Urban Council, said not only is the imagery commonly seen in schools degrading, but it passes myths about what Native Americans are like on to young people.
“They have stolen our history without reading our history,” Rawlings said.
He sees the impact of this process in his grandchildren, he said, who are hurt by Native American stereotypes.
When schools use harmful imagery, it says, “this is the image of them [Native Americans]. This is what they look like, this is who they are,” Clement said, adding that these stereotypes imply Native Americans cannot be professionals, like doctors and lawyers, who exist in modern society.
Instead, school mascots such as “the Indians” say that “Native Americans don’t exist anymore,” Clement said.
“If it was any other group of people, there would not be this discussion,” Clement said. “If you really want to honor native people, then honor their requests to stop using their symbols and mascots at your schools,” Clement said.
Hearst Connecticut Media reached out to representatives associated with all 17 schools whose mascots, nicknames and/or logos have incorporated stereotypical Native American names or imagery. In most cases, those representatives were superintendents, but principals and Boards of Education also were contacted.
Only four returned requests for comment, including spokespeople from North Haven, Guilford High School, Windsor High School and Montville High School.
Other schools included Canton High School; Conard and Hall high schools in West Hartford; Derby High School; Farmington High School; Glastonbury High School; Newington High School; Nonnewaug High School; RHAM High School in Hebron; Torrington High School; Wamogo Regional High School; Watertown High School; H.C. Wilcox Technical High School; and Windsor High School.
The use of imagery varies by district. Wamogo High School, for example, is nicknamed the Warriors, and the logo on the school district website does not allude to Native American stereotypes.
But just last year, the district distributed a survey to choose the logo, according to an announcement on the school website, which noted that a number of the images had appeared on school gear.
One of those images depicted a stereotypical Indian head; two others featured feathers.
Canton High School also is nicknamed the Warriors, and its website has a stereotypical Indian head as an icon at the top of the page. A similar image comes up in a photo taken earlier this year in the lobby of Derby High School, whose sports teams are called “the Red Raiders.”
Guilford’s debate is not new; Zip06 reported that the same question made headlines in 2011.
Other districts have grappled with the issue, too — with varied results.
Earlier this year, Manchester changed its nickname from the Indians to the Red Hawks.
A mascot by the same name now also represents Killingly, formerly nicknamed the Redmen, the Norwich Bulletin reported.
West Hartford, whose mascots traditionally had been portrayed as Indian heads, removed all Native American imagery and symbolism from its logos and mascots in 2015, the Courant reported. But it kept the names — the Chieftans at Conard High School and the Warriors at Hall High School.
Rawlings said partial measures like these are inadequate.
Clement agreed. “They’re not enough. It should be gone completely.”
Clement believes the best way forward is through a statewide referendum; Maine, he pointed out, did away with “Indian” mascots al together.
In 2015, North Haven debated changing the name of its high school mascot, the Indians. When Clement went to speak on the issue, he said, he was treated badly by some townspeople and even called names.
Ultimately, North Haven opted not to change its nickname.
“From what I heard over the years, the majority of North Haven residents want to retain the name,” said First Selectman Michael Freda, adding that he has not heard any discussion of the issue in the past couple of years.
If it does come up again, Freda said, the town likely would bring the question to a vote.
But North Haven did make some changes.
“We have not taken away the mascot name the Indians,” said Board of Education member Anita Anderson. “But we do not use the caricature on any new uniforms or sports equipment.”
Meanwhile, Guilford is poised to delve into the question of how the district should handle its own controversial nickname
Dr. Caitlin Sorenson, who wrote a letter to the Board of Education stating her concerns in September, is not only a mother of two Guilford first-graders. She also researches multicultural psychology and ethics.
“As I am sure you are aware, many towns in Connecticut continue to struggle with contextualizing their traditional mascots in our 21st century diverse and inclusive world, knowing what we now know about Native objections to these practices and the extensive scientific research demonstrating their harm to Native and non-Native children,” Sorenson’s email read. “I write today to ask that you direct Superintendent (of Schools Paul) Freeman to establish a committee to consider the acceptability of the current mascot.”
Freeman said Wednesday he is in the early stages of organizing a “focused conversation” about the school nickname, adding that the discussion will be open to the entire community.
“Guilford is certainly not the only place where these concerns have been raised, and I think it’s entirely appropriate that we discuss those concerns,” he said.
When asked Friday what motivated her to write the letter, Sorenson said, “Guilford is a wonderful town, it’s so supportive and embracing of the children in the community in terms of civic events, excellent schools, and the overall values of the town. The values that make Guilford a great place to live are not represented by the mascot in 2019,” she said.