The campaign to save West Hartford’s “Chieftains” and “Warriors” team names won support Tuesday from the leader of the Schaghticoke Tribal Nation, who said changing them might harm Native Americans.
“We are honored in one sense that out of all the names you could choose, you choose to represent Native Americans,” Chief Richard Velky told the school board Tuesday night.
“Don’t disregard that. Don’t abuse it. Don’t diminish it – that’s what you’re doing when you strip it,” Velky said, drawing applause from parents who called on the board to retain the names for Conard and Hall high schools’ sports teams.
In a split vote earlier this year, the board decided to do away with team names that existed for decades. Several parents and students had complained the names are culturally insensitive, and West Hartford followed the lead of Farmington, Newington, Manchester, Glastonbury and North Haven in dropping mascots that evoke indigenous people.
But there has been an outcry from alumni that the decision ignored tradition and community pride that accompany the team names. Some parents in April circulated a petition calling on the board to overturn the decision; they argued that the names aren’t derogatory.
West Hartford educators during the winter heard from several Native American leaders around Connecticut concurring that the mascots should be retired. But Velky traveled to town Tuesday night to provide a different perspective.
The Schaghticokes are fighting for federal recognition, and Velky said the real affront to them has come from Connecticut officials who’ve opposed it. He views the removal of Native American imagery from school sports teams as a drive to eradicate his tribe and others from history.
“This state tried to erase us – they’re still trying to do that today,” he said. “When somebody says to us ‘are you offended by a symbol or a logo, I’m saying ‘no, what offends me is what happened to us,’ “ Velky said.
“This has been a very, very divisive issue in our community,” said board member Gayle Harris, who asked Velky if he was saying the Warriors and Chieftains names should be kept as a way to honor the history of tribes in Connecticut.
“I’m afraid for you not to use them,” he replied. ”Not to use them today would maybe seem like a very small thing – but what are we not going to use 20 years from today? Will students coming into school even know what a warrior or chieftain is?”
Acknowledging that other tribes feel differently, Velky said “Everybody has things that offend them differently – it I think it’s all in the presentation. If you’re using it to offend us, I’m against it. But if you’re using it for us – and for so many years – then don’t let others ell you what to do. If it’s right, you stand up for it.”
Board member Jason Chang, a prominent advocate for retiring the team names, said research shows Native mascots can’t take the place of learning about indigenous people’s cultures through organized lessons in school. He questioned why some residents would fight to keep the names but not know the history of Native Americans in the state.
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Velky said the schools should have the mascots as well as a more through curriculum on Native American cultures.
In the winter, the Golden Hill Paugussett Tribal Nation sent a letter likening the use of those names to identity theft, and rejecting any suggestion that they honor the cultures of indigenous people.
“Put a plaque or board up so all can see and read (the) history of the meaning of the name and symbol, so people know the true history of where it comes from,” the letter said.
A Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation letter didn’t directly address West Hartford’s case, but called for “an end to the wide-ranging appropriation of Native American-related imagery, culture, and names in all manner of commercial settings that continue to promote stereotypes, misrepresent Native culture and create lasting harm for tribal nations and their citizens.”
The Eastern Pequot Tribal Nation specifically opposed West Hartford’s use of the mascots, calling it offensive.
“Educational institutions that engage in false representation of marginalized groups do not fulfill their public obligation to create a safe space for knowledge and critical thinking,” according to a letter from Brenda Geer, the Eastern Pequots’ vice chairwoman.
The board took no action Tuesday night; the current plan is to phase out the Chieftains and Warriors names by the end of the year.