NORTH HAVEN — At school and at sporting events, other students have directed racial slurs against eighth-grader Kendall Washington and asked whether she was an “Indian,” according to the teen and her mother.
As North Haven residents, the mother-daughter pair, who identify as members of the Nipmuc Nation, are part of a renewed effort to push the Board of Education to drop the school district’s “Indians” name and mascot.
Six years after a meeting on the subject ended in turmoil, the board took a step in that direction, opting to “retire” the “Indians” caricature used as a mascot. In a workshop following the vote, members decided to take another step, planning to vote in July on whether to stop using the “Indians” name, as well.
Those who favor keeping the mascot have said it is meant to honor Native American history and say they associate it with positive memories of growing up in North Haven.
But Dana Washington, Kendall Washington’s mother, said in an interview that she grew up in North Haven feeling ashamed of her heritage because Native Americans were associated with negative stereotypes.
Imaging around “Indians” mascots — depicted as “warriors,” or as aggressors — often is violent, she said, adding that such mascots also “(mock) sacred elements.”
“It affects the way our non-native communities … treat us. Not just us, but also many communities of color,” she said. “It stereotypes behavior, it stereotypes images of how people should look.”
Washington said her daughter has been taunted with the word Indian.
Ultimately, Washington said she transferred her daughter to New Haven schools because the family had “enough of her carrying the weight of being the only Black child or only Native child in her room … It wasn’t fair to her.”
But Kendall Washington still plays sports in North Haven leagues, with equipment that, though some of the teams are privately-run, sometimes bears the “Indians” moniker, according to her mother. Kendall spoke publicly to the school board about the slurs directed at her in school.
“She couldn’t wear her uniform around my family, you know, or around any tribal events for sure,” Dana Washington said. “It’s completely offensive.”
At board meetings over the past year, a large majority of dozens of public comments have favored changing the mascot, documents show. When the same topic was broached in 2015, it sparked intense controversy.
Footage from a February board meeting shows Chairwoman Anita Anderson recalling the events of 2015. That year, a board meeting on the subject ended abruptly after tensions boiled over.
“The mascot divides our town,” she said. “We all know what happened the last time we had a public forum on this. Some of us were quite frightened.”
Those who favored keeping the mascot said it was a way to honor Native American history.
Now, two more opposing petitions are circulating.
“This is a part of our history. This was to honor the Indians of North Haven,” the current petition in favor of keeping the mascot says. “Our Mascot is to honor the memory of the North Haven Indian Tribes, it’s not to depict racism or to discriminate.”
In terms of petition signatures, however, the 2015 trend has reversed: the pro-mascot petition has more than 2,000 signatures, while a competing petition seeking to change the mascot, has more than 5,000.
Following the 2015 events and with the fate of the mascot unclear, Anderson said, the district stopped using the mascot or the name “Indians” on new sports uniforms. She told a reporter she did not have an official stance on whether to retire the mascot name.
After their vote to officially retire the caricature, the Board of Education held a workshop during which Anderson said many who were against changing the mascot wanted to keep it because they associated it with happy memories and with growing up in North Haven.
Board member Dorothy Logan acknowledged “there’s a real emotional attachment to our mascot.”
But she seemed to favor a change.
“I think we have to make a change,” she said, later adding, “The science is saying this is harmful to students. … If that’s the case, then we’ve got to make a decision after we’ve listened to everybody, either yes it is — and we change — or no.”
Whether the board will drop the “Indians” name remains a question. Some members, including Amanda Gabriele and Jennifer Cecarelli, strongly favor a change, citing a body of research around the harm such mascots can cause.
According to the American Psychological Association, which in 2005 called for the “retirement of all American Indian mascots,” research shows use of such mascot negatively affects all students by “undermining the educational experiences of members of all communities — especially those who have had little or no contact with indigenous peoples.”
It also “establishes an unwelcome and often times hostile learning environment for American Indian students that affirms negative images/stereotypes that are promoted in mainstream society,” per the APA website.
Board members noted they had received letters from tribal nations asking them to stop using the mascot.
“Negative Indian stereotypes — especially those perpetuated by sports mascots — affect the reputation and self-image of every single Native person and foster ongoing discrimination against tribal citizens,” according to the National Congress of American Indians, which, except in certain instances opposes the use of such mascots. “Indian mascots and stereotypes present a misleading image of Indian people and feed the historic myths that have been used to whitewash a history of oppression.”
Board member Ronald Bathrick, however, said he had trouble understanding why the mascot was not honorific when having street names of Native American origin seemingly was OK.
“To think that you took the name ‘Indian’ and applied it to a team name to demoralize them makes no sense,” he said.
Board member Eleni Diakogeorgiou said she wondered whether there was an alternate way to present the mascot that would make it acceptable. .
Whatever happened, Anderson made clear during the meeting that retiring the mascot does not mean the district would delete any existing mascot-related items, such as in trophy cases.
“But our job as a Board of Ed is to respect and watch out for every child that’s in our town,” she said. “And I don’t want people who are listening to us and who are so faithful to that Indian mascot from all their years and the great things that it did … I want them to know that … our responsibility is the children.”
First Selectman Michael Freda said he offered to hold a referendum on the matter, adding that since the mascot decision rests with the Board of Education, it would have delivered only advisory results.
Anderson told a reporter the district opted not to hold one because no matter the popular vote, the board would have to consider “how this affects our students.”
In addition to the opinions of residents, a state agency has weighed in on mascot.
The board received a letter on the topic from the state Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities, dated May 13.
“The Commission recognizes that the ‘Indian’ name has played an important part in the history of North Haven. We are not here to erase that history or attack the integrity or intentions of your town. We do, however, fully intend to bring this discriminatory practice to an end,” the letter says.
It suggests keeping the mascot could have financial consequences.
“The CHRO is currently in the process of assessing litigation options which may culminate in the towns that choose to continue this discriminatory practice having formal complaints filed against them. This would open those municipalities up to the costs of litigation, the associated media coverage, and the potential for liability.”