MONTVILLE — For decades the Montville High School athletic teams have competed as the “Indians” with the blessing of the Mohegans, the Native American tribe that traces its local history back centuries and today operates one of the world’s biggest casinos.
Then last week, the Mohegan Tribe announced that it no longer supports the use of Indian-related team names.
The reversal has unsettled many in the southeastern Connecticut town, which has considered itself immune to controversies stirred by Native American mascots elsewhere because of its close ties to the federally recognized tribe. Not only is the tribe behind Mohegan Sun a major presence in town, and a booster of its athletic programs, but many tribal members have been among the students to wear the black and orange of the Montville Indians.
The tribe and the school system have communicated over the years to ensure the name honors American Indians and is not used in a derogatory way. The mayor, Ronald McDaniel, said the school system will follow up with the tribe but the name has never been a source of friction.
“I don’t personally find it offensive,” said McDaniel, a Democrat. “We don’t use it in an offensive manner.”
Colleen Rix, a Republican town councilor and a 2000 graduate of Montville High, said the Indians name reflects pride in the history shared by the town and tribe.
“It’s never been a contentious topic,” she said. “I did go to school with several tribal members. It was never this clash between them and us. We were all there and it was, ‘Oh, he’s a tribal member, that’s cool,’” she said.
Supporters draw a distinction with other towns that have mascots wear stereotypical Native American dress or nicknames like “Redskins” or “Redmen” — the name the school board in Killingly, Connecticut, voted to reinstate this month after briefly adopting the name “Red Hawks.”
It was amid the fallout of that reversal that the Democratic speaker of the Connecticut House said state lawmakers should consider banning Native American names and symbols at public schools. Several states already have implemented similar bans or restrictions. Across Connecticut, 19 public schools still use Native American-themed names or imagery.
In a statement shared first last week with The Day newspaper, Mohegan Chief Lynn Malerba said the term “Indians” is not offensive in and of itself and in Montville’s case the name recognizes the first inhabitants of the area. But she said the tribe believes it is time to end the use of American Indian mascots and team names.
“While the stated intent may be to ‘honor’ American Indians, there is a great potential for less than respectful behaviors to occur in conjunction with these mascots. Additionally, people should not be considered mascots. It is demeaning to be relegated to a stereotyping of a people. This should not be allowed to continue,” Malerba said in the written statement on behalf of the tribal council, elders council and medicine woman.
Malerba said in an email there have not been recent conversations with the Montville school system on the topic but she anticipated there would be in light of the proposed legislation.
Montville Schools Superintendent Laurie Pallin said in a written statement to The Day that she has reached out to the tribe to indicate openness to discussions on the topic, saying the school system and tribe have both “viewed our identity as a sign of our combined history, mutual respect and continued collaboration.” She did not respond to requests for comment from The Associated Press.
The tribe’s history is recognized in this community of 20,000 people in other ways including streets named after tribal leaders, the Mohegan Elementary School named for the tribe, and the image of a Native American man on patches worn by Montville police officers.
The Indians name was adopted when Montville High School was built in 1965. The school has consulted with the tribe over the years on the use of the name. An early logo, featuring a Native American man in profile with a feather in his braided hair, has been phased out in favor of the current logo, an orange “M” in a white circle with two feathers falling off to the side.
The tribe, whose casino in town generates close to $1 billion in annual revenue, also has been a financial supporter of the schools and their athletic programs. In the last few years, the tribe has donated over $3,000 for new equipment for a concession stand and donated use of a skybox at a concert for a fundraiser, according to Rocky Stone, president of the Montville High Athletics Boosters Organization.
As far as Stone has heard, students have only been proud to play for Indians teams, including tribal members. If the tribe has a problem with the name, he said, they should reach out to the Board of Education.
“They are tremendous neighbors,” Stone said. “We are lucky to have them and nobody wants to offend them if somebody is offended.”