After years of bitter controversy, the North Haven Board of Education took the first formal step toward joining other Connecticut towns in getting rid of their high schools’ Native American mascots.
The board voted unanimously Thursday night to retire the North Haven Indians logo, a stern-looking Native American with braided hair wearing feathers and a headband. It will hold a special meeting in July to decide whether to drop the Indian nickname, chairwoman Anita Anderson said.
“There are going to be people upset about this no matter the outcome of the vote, but I would rather it happen when the kids are not all in one building because I don’t want any emotions to get heightened,” board member Randi Peterson said during a workshop on retiring the mascot that followed Thursday’s meeting. “I would hope that outside of school the adults in town will be mature about it.”
The board got an added incentive to dump the mascot this week when it received a letter from the state Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities saying the agency was considering suing school systems that continue to use Native American mascots.
Three state Indian tribes, the Mashantucket Pequots, the Mohegan Tribal Nation and the Golden Hill Paugussetts, all have sent the school system letters asking them to stop using the Indians mascot, Anderson said.
The vote follows years of often angry controversy. An attempt to make the change failed in 2015 in the face of fierce resistance. Defenders called the mascot a tradition and argued that it honored Native Americans. Those seeking its removal called it a racist stereotype that harms all students, especially Native Americans and kids of color.
“This issue has been pulsating with divisiveness in the community here,” First Selectman Michael Freda said Friday. “There’s strong feelings on both sides of the issue.” At one point, Freda said he suggested a referendum to decide the matter, but that idea fizzled when the town learned state law would prevent the vote from being binding.
In spite of appearances, Thursday’s vote was not an actual policy change. It formalized a decision that was never formally voted on or made public four years ago to phase out the logo and Indians name on new uniforms, Anderson said. Asked why the board handled it that way, Anderson cited the divisiveness of the public debate in 2015.
“I had to shut down a meeting,” she said. “That’s how bad it was. It was a very contentious issue, and it was dividing the town. It was at that point that we decided not to (take a public vote on or announce the new policy).”
In spite of previously strong support for the Indian mascot, no one spoke in support of keeping it during the public comment section of Thursday’s meeting.
Those fighting to jettison the mascot praised the board’s decision and urged members to take the next step to drop the Indians name as well.
“It’s just not acceptable,” said Jill Jenkins, who is Black and Indigenous and recounted racism she encountered while attending North Haven schools in the 1970s and early 1980s. “I am asking you to please consider retiring the name as well.”
A number of North Haven students also spoke, all in support of the board’s decision to banish the Indian mascot. Some called it racist and offensive.
“I’m proud to be from North Haven, but I’m not proud to be an Indian,” high school student Eveani Okwauosa told the board.
Dana Washington, a member of the Nipmuc and Narragansett tribes, talked of how difficult it is for her daughter to wear a cheerleading uniform with “Indians” on it and how she cannot wear North Haven school gear to family gatherings because relatives would be offended. She spoke of racism she says her daughter had encountered in North Haven schools and urged the board to change the name.
Newingon, Farmington and Guilford have dropped their Native American mascots in the last year. The Killingly school board voted to get rid of its high school’s Redmen mascot in 2019, but a backlash led to election of a new board that reinstated it the following year.