NORTH HAVEN >> To many in this town of about 23,000, the North Haven High School’s Indian’s nickname shows a pride in their community and the courage and strength of the athletes playing on its sports teams, as evidenced Thursday night by the turnout at the district’s monthly Board of Education meeting for a discussion on the moniker.
But for many Natiive Americans, the use of an image of an Indian is offensive and shows how little Americans understand about Native American history. This was never more evident than during the discussion Thursday night that ended in a shouting match when Talia Gallagher, a member of the NHHS class of 2013 and a sophomore at Clark University in Massachusetts, urged the board to consider changing the school’s mascot, saying using the likeness of an Indian is offensive.
It’s not a debate limited to North Haven. Most prominent is the controversy over the last 10 years about the Washington Redskins and the efforts to get the NFL organization to change that name. Dozens of Native American tribes and organizations banded together to work to get the name changed but have been met by hardened opposition from team administrators and fans who say it’s not meant to disparage anyone.
That’s a sign of ignorance, according to James Rawlings, the chairman of the Connecticut Native American Inter Tribal Urban Council. But he wasn’t surprised by the response of parents and students to attempts to replace the North Haven Indian mascot, he said.
“Change always has that kind of a pushback,” he said. “This is happening all across America, so I wasn’t at all surprised by the pushback.”
It’s also happening in Lancaster, New York, where teams from two nearby high schools — in Akron and Lake Shore — cancelled five lacrosse games to protest the Lancaster moniker, the Redskins. Native American students made up a portion of both the Akron and Lake Shore teams and said they found Lancaster’s use of the term Redskins offensive.
As well they should, Rawlings said. “People don’t know the genesis of the word ‘redskins,’” he said. “They said it was a sense of pride, but it refers to killing babies for their skins and a bounty, killing women for their skins and a bounty, killing men for their skins and a bounty.”
Board of Education meetings in Lancaster have been similar to that which took place Thursday night in North Haven — large contingents turning out to argue both sides of the issue. The issue there has yet to be resolved.
Closer to home, the debate is raging in West Hartford, where there is a effort afoot to change the Conrad High School Chieftans mascot and the Warrior mascot at Hall High School, as well as the cheering sections known as the Reservation and the Tribe, according to the Hartford Courant. In addition, the Conrad student newspaper is called “The Powwow.” According to the Courant, similar arguments were made at a meeting there last month as were made Thursday in North Haven.
Until 2002, the teams at Quinnipiac University were known as the Braves but was then changed to the Bobcats because the school “didn’t feel it was appropriate” to use the Native American term, officials there said at the time.
There are still a number of schools in Connecticut that use Native American terms to identify their athletic teams, among them the Derby High School “Red Raiders” and the Indians, shared by Guilford High School and Wilcox Technical High School in Meriden. The North Haven Board of Education addressed the issue Thursday at the request of Gallagher, who earlier this year started a petition drive to get the name changed.
Her efforts immediately prompted an opposing campaign to keep the name, led by Michael Parisi, also a member of the class of 2013, who countered with his own petition signed by more than 2,000 people. And at Thursday’s meeting, several people who identified themselves as Native Americans said they took no offense to the Indian name. “I am a Mohegan Indian, and I an not offended,” one woman said.
Some who opposed the proposed change were North Haven High School alumni from as far back as 30 or 40 years ago who said the Indian symbol is a source of community pride.
“As a graduate of North Haven High School, we never considered the Indian as our mascot, we considered ourselves a tribe,” said resident Pam Perillo, adding that if not for the Indian tribes in North Haven, particularly Montewese, the chief of the Quinnipiac tribe, the town would never have come to be. “Without his help, the people of North Haven would not have survived,” she said. “You find him everywhere, including on our town seal.”
But it’s that perception that the settlers and the Indians worked together for their mutual benefit that is so wrong, Rawlings said. People tend to believe that the Native Americans willingly sold their land to the settlers, he said, when in reality, the Native Americans would never willingly sell land.
“It’s an example of people not even knowing what [the Native Americans] went through,” he said. “The history books that were written were not from those who were the victims. They never sold the land because they had no concept of selling land, it’s something they would never do and it’s against how we look at nature — everyone owns the land, but they seem to think the Native Americans were in the commodity business.
“They like to protect their history as they see it, they protect the status quo,” Rawlings said. “They see things from their own perspective and when another is put on the table, they don’t want to change it because they’re wedded to their beliefs.”
What happened to the Native Americans was genocide, Rawlings said, and it went on until just recently, such as the “Indian schools” that took Native American children off reservations and put them in a boarding school setting where they were stripped of their traditional clothing and “Americanized.” Those schools continued to exist throughout the 20 century and into the early 2000s.