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Connecticut school reinstates mascot critics call racist

Updated 4:03 PM ET, Tue January 14, 2020

(CNN) - Less than a year after voting to remove the name of a school mascot that some Native Americans found racist, the school board of a small Connecticut town has voted to reinstate it.

The Redmen, who became the Redhawks in the fall, will now be known as the Redmen again. The decision follows the election of a larger majority Republican school board in Killingly, Connecticut, a town of about 17,000 in northeast Connecticut

Republicans in a November election ran largely on the platform of bringing the Redmen mascot back to Killingly High School, board members said.

A school poll showed that a majority of students wanted to keep the Redmen mascot, while most staff at Killingly wanted to replace it, board members and the school's athletic director told CNN.

Some Native Americans have said using the name Redmen as a school mascot at Killingly is without a doubt racist.

"We're at a time where our ancestors' pain and decimation are fantasized, rebranded and commercialized," Angelina Casanova-Bell, national legislative affairs manager for the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation located in southeastern Connecticut, told CNN.

Her tribe, along with other local Native American groups, have issued various statements condemning Killingly's use of the mascot, so tribal members were surprised to hear that the Redmen mascot was reinstated, she said. "We often hear from people, especially at high schools that use Native themed mascots, that it evokes some sense of nostalgia from their days in high school, but we don't feel honored by it," Casanova-Bell said. "It disregards our personhood. There's this idea that Native Americans aren't real, that we don't exist, and we do."

Reinstating the mascot comes at a time where various professional sports teams are being criticized for using Native American imagery. Native American groups have been fighting to change the name of the Washington Redskins, Casanova-Bell said, and the Cleveland Indians dropped the Native American caricature Chief Wahoo from the Major League Baseball team's uniforms in 2018.

Supporter calls original mascot a 'symbol of pride'

Backing the reinstatement of the Redman name was Raymond Wood II, a Native American member of the Nipmuck tribe in Connecticut and Republican town councilman. He said he views the Redmen school mascot as a strong symbol of his own Native American heritage -- and is happy to see it displayed across the school and the town. He notes that there is little Native American history being taught in the education curriculum and estimates that the Native American population in Killingly is around 1%. The Redmen name serves as a "symbol of pride" for Native Americans who have little representation in Killingly, he said, and not as a racist figure. "You want to eliminate the one thing that reminds this town of its Native American history? That's just wrong," Wood said.

Wood grew up in Killingly, and is proud of the school football team that has won various state championships, he said. The Redmen name represents "the ferocity of native Americans in war," and he says the school football team shows this same spirit.

But not all supporters of the football team agree with Wood. Kevin Marcoux, the director of athletics at Killingly High School, said at a December Board of Education meeting that "the rest of the state is wondering what is wrong with Killingly," according to a written version of his statement, which he provided to CNN. At the December meeting, Marcoux said that reinstating the mascot would only embroil the school in more negative press and make it hard for him to recruit new students.

"I'm not sure how much more clear that established tribes can voice their disapproval for Native American mascots," he said. "Two of the biggest tribes in the country reside a short drive from here, neither support the Redmen mascot."

Terren Allen, a 2019 graduate of Killingly, was a student representative on the board of education. She fought to retire the Redmen mascot from the school, so she feels "very disappointed" that the name was reinstated, she said. "But I have to stay positive and have pride in the fact that I did change some people and educated some people," she said. She often was one of the only people of color in her classes, she told CNN, which made her feel like it was her duty to speak up for people that don't have a platform to do so. "For people that struggle with racism all the time it's a battle that we are constantly fighting," Allen said.

Republican members who voted in favor of reinstating the Redmen title told CNN that they wanted to represent the majority opinion for the town.

"The people were ignored," said newly elected school board member Jason Muscara, referencing the school's earlier name change to Redhawks. He cast one of the votes in the 5-4 vote last week. Muscara said that images of the Redmen mascot -- a Native American with a headdress -- are portrayed on the sports teams' jerseys and throughout the school.

Muscara, along with fellow Republican board member Norm Ferron, said they spoke to various Native American tribe members who voiced support for the Redmen name. "I did a lot of research the past couple of months because I never believed the false narrative about it being any kind of racist symbol because no one names their school after that they detest," Ferron said. "We don't feel that this name is in any way offensive to any group."

Mascot is 'all that's wrong' with Killingly, alum says

Some alumni have also expressed discontent at the reinstatement of the mascot. Nick Murray, who graduated from Killingly in 2007, said that he played various sports in high school and still owns many of his jerseys. But he's embarrassed to have anything with the "horrible logo" on it, he said. Murray has since moved away, but said he noticed "how racist people were" while growing up there, though he still visits his family there when he gets the chance. "For everyone that left Killingly the mascot symbolizes all that's wrong with the town," he said.

Marcoux has heard from alumni who expressed a fierce support for the Redmen mascot, the athletic director wrote in his board statement he provided to CNN. Some were worried that the change to Redhawks was "essentially wiping out the Redmen history," Marcoux said.

For now, the Redmen mascot will continue to represent Killingly high school, to the satisfaction of Wood and other supporters of the symbol. But for Casanova-Bell and the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation, the use of the mascot dehumanizes them, she said. "When we fantasize Native Americans in that way it places us in the past and not as current living people who continue to exist," Casanova-Bell said. "We want to reiterate that we want the board of education to appropriately honor Connecticut tribes."

Correction: This story has been updated to correctly reflect the political makeup of the Killingly High School board.


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