WEST HARTFORD — In the new year, the Board of Education plans to discuss whether the town’s high schools should continue using the Chieftain and Warrior nicknames.
In 2015, after student initiative, the board voted unanimously to enact a policy that would keep the names in place, but retire the mascots and imagery associated with them.
In June, the state legislature passed Public Act 21-2, which would deny any school funding from the Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan Fund who uses “any name, symbol or image that depicts, refers to or is associated with a state or federally recognized Native American tribe or a Native American individual, custom or tradition, as a mascot, nickname, logo or team name.”
West Hartford is set to receive nearly $28,000 from the grant in the current fiscal year. The fund is distributing over $51 million in grants statewide this year.
Andy Morrow, the assistant superintendent for administration, noted in a letter that other local high schools, including those in Farmington, Manchester, Newington and Northwest Catholic High School, all recently changed their nicknames. Canton High School is in the process of doing the same.
Morrow said the town’s high schools are among about a dozen in the state that still have a name that could be seen as linked to Native Americans.
“We need to be considering whether or not it’s time to engage in the discussion and engage in the determination of do you at this point change ... the Chieftain and the Warrior names,” Morrow said.
Morrow, when asked if the names Chieftain and Warrior can apply to other cultures or situations and not just Native Americans, said they would be “kidding” themselves to say that.
“It’s difficult to sever something from a legacy,” Morrow said. I think we can in essence kid ourselves and say that Chieftain can refer to other things as well, just as we can say Warrior can refer to other things as well. We’re kind of kidding ourselves. We’re parsing language at that point and we’re doing a disservice to an entire community when we do that.”
Superintendent Tom Moore added that while the district has done well to remove the imagery, the names remaining may still provide a link to the past.
“They’ve done a really good job of decoupling the name and the imagery of the past,” Moore said. “That being said, it’s still the imagery of the past. It’s still the link to the past. A word in it of itself that is cross cultural has different meanings. The roots of both of those words, at both of the schools and both of the imagery and both of the history when it was a mascot, when there were people dressed up at both Hall and Conard going back 30 or 40 years, there certainly was that tie.”
Moore added that student groups at Hall used to be referred to as the “Reservation” and at Conard they were referred to as the “Red C.”
“They moved away from that,” Moore said. “But there is a ‘TF’ on the shirts that the students use. And what does that signify? Tribe forever. So, even though we’ve tried, there’s still that connection that no matter what, that still exists in the memory and the day-to-day operations.”
Board of Education member Ethan Goldman countered by saying the dictionary definition of warrior doesn’t mention Native Americans.
“It does not mention Native Americans at all,” Goldman said. “It all depends on how you look at it.”
If those names were determined as being associated with Native Americans, West Hartford would lose the nearly $28,000 in funding the grant is set to provide to them.
Board of Education member Jason Chang said there’s a “compelling case” to make the change as a way to provide extra funding for the town.
“This is obviously something that has continued to surface as a problem even after the board’s attention to this in 2015,” Chang said. “Our students deserve as much of the state funding as we can get. This share of funds will continue to grow. There’s a very strong compliance issue here for our anti-racism and equity policy. This has an additional benefit of aligning with our curriculum.”
Gayle Harris, who said there are people in town who may feel strong connections to those names because they or their children played for those sports teams, said she wants to make sure the board listens to the public’s feedback.
“We listened to parents speak here tonight who feel the board is not responsive to what they’re experiencing and what they feel,” Harris said. “This is a very big decision in this community. If I remember correctly ... when this was last brought up, it was one of the biggest board meetings ever. We have to take into account what the community feels as well.”
The board voted to take up the issue with a vote at its Feb. 1 meeting. Goldman cast the lone dissenting vote on the matter and Harris abstained.