Some Connecticut school districts tell state they’ll keep Native American mascots, forgo funding

Photo of Alex Putterman
Football with laces out. Stock photo

Football with laces out. Stock photo

Rich Johnson of Spectacle Photo / Getty Images/Flickr RF

While many Connecticut schools have shed Native American mascots in recent years amid changing public opinion and a new state law, several districts say they will continue to use nicknames and logos associated with indigenous groups — even if that means sacrificing state funds to do so.

The towns of Killingly, Windsor and Derby, as well as the school district serving Woodbury and Bethlehem, have informed the state that their schools will keep all current mascots, according to documents obtained by Hearst Connecticut Media. Those decisions come despite a bill passed last year barring towns that use Native American nicknames or logos without tribal consent from receiving annual slot machine payouts from the Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan tribes.

Pending an official ruling from the Office of Policy and Management, Derby stands to lose $207,304 in state funding next year, while Killingly will forfeit $94,184 and Bethlehem will miss out on $4,125. Windsor and Woodbury are not allotted money from the Mashantucket Pequot/Mohegan Fund for the coming year and therefore will not face a financial consequence for keeping their mascots.

Of 12 school districts the state designated last year as having unacceptable nicknames or mascots, five have since rebranded, three have chosen to maintain their “Warriors” nicknames while eliminating associated Native American imagery, and the remaining four have thus far kept their mascots in place.

Under the new law, districts have until July 1 to replace all Native American nicknames and logos, unless granted an extension by OPM.

In January, OPM asked all 169 Connecticut municipalities to complete a form disclosing nicknames and mascots for all public schools so the agency can determine which towns stand to lose tribal funding. On those forms, some school districts explained their intentions to remove Native American mascots, while others stood by their current nicknames and/or imagery.

Among the notable submissions:

  Killingly officials said they will retain the local high school’s “Redmen” mascot, which the town jettisoned in 2019, then restored in early 2020 following political backlash.

  Windsor, whose high school uses a “Warriors” nickname with an arrowhead logo, attached a letter from superintendent Terrell Hill reading, “At this time, I have not been directed by the Windsor Board of Education to engage the community in discussions regarding the changing of the WHS Warriors name. Until I have been instructed to do so, the name, Windsor High School Warriors, will remain.”

  Officials in Woodbury and Bethlehem checked a box indicating that Nonnewaug High does not use a mascot associated with Native Americans, despite the school maintaining a nickname, “Chiefs,” that the state has previously characterized as an offending mascot.

  Derby, whose middle and high schools both use the nickname “Red Raiders” along with several logos containing Native American imagery, attached a letter from Schaghticoke Tribal Nation, a state-recognized tribe with an office in the town. According to the letter, which does not mention Derby specifically, the Schaghticokes approve of Native American-inspired mascots in certain contexts, “as a public means of sustaining Native American culture and history of Connecticut’s first citizens.”

  Torrington High has made no official announcement about changing its “Red Raiders” nickname, but officials told the state that the school is now known simply as the “Raiders.”

  Wilton officials explained that Wilton High’s logo depicts a “traditional Roman spear head,” not a Native one, and that the image was recently updated to make the distinction more clear.

  School districts in Watertown and Montville requested additional time to implement new mascots that have already been approved by the towns’ respective boards of education. Watertown High, formerly the Indians, will become the Warriors this summer, while Montville High, also formerly the Indians, has not yet chosen a new mascot. Both districts assured the state that their changes will take effect before July 1, in compliance with the new law.

  Montville also submitted a letter from James Gessner Jr., chairman of the Mohegan Tribe, explicitly granting permission for the town to maintain the name of Mohegan Elementary School.

  Similarly, New Milford attached a letter from the Schaghticoke Tribal Nation, identical to the one Derby submitted, in defense of Schaghticoke Middle School, which is named for the tribe. It is not clear from the language of the new law whether school names are subject to the same regulations as sports mascots.

Once a staple of Connecticut high school sports, Native American mascots have gradually disappeared in recent years amid opposition from many indigenous groups both locally and nationally. The National Congress of American Indians, for example, views Native American mascots as “symbols of disrespect that degrade, mock, and harm Native people, particularly Native youth,” according to its website.

In Connecticut, Mohegan Chief Lynn Malerba has called Native American mascots “demeaning” and recommended that they be discontinued, while Mashantucket Pequot leaders have also voiced support for efforts to replace Native American nicknames and imagery.

Numerous Connecticut towns have replaced Native American nicknames or logos in the past three years, including Manchester, Farmington, Glastonbury, North Haven, Hebron, Guilford, West Hartford and more. This wave of mascot changes mirrors a national trend that has led professional teams such as baseball’s Cleveland Guardians (formerly Indians) and football’s Washington Commanders (formerly Redskins) to adopt new names and imagery.

Connecticut’s new law passed last year as part of the budget implementer process, with key lawmakers arguing that towns whose mascots offend local Native American tribes should not receive payouts from those same tribes.

While some towns’ submissions to OPM, such as Killingly’s, appear clear-cut, the agency will face various questions in determining which towns are or aren’t precluded from tribal funds as a result of the new law. Is the Schaghticoke Tribal Nation’s letter sufficient to let Derby maintain its name and logos? Is “Chiefs” an inherently Native American term? What about “Warriors,” a nickname used by more than half a dozen Connecticut high schools, many of whom don’t pair it with Native American imagery?

OPM spokesperson Chris Collibee said in an email that the agency has not completed its review of submissions from towns and therefore “cannot comment on specific issues at this time.” OPM, he said, will complete its review by fall, in time to disburse the first round of annual Mashantucket Pequot/Mohegan Fund payments by Jan. 1.

All OPM rulings will be governed by the new statute, which defines a Native American mascot as “any name, symbol or image that depicts, refers to or is associated with a state or federally recognized Native American tribe, or Native American individual, custom or tradition.” Exceptions are allowed in cases where a district can provide written consent from a state or federally recognized tribe located in or historically associated with the town.

Officials from Windsor and the Region 14 school district serving Woodbury and Bethlehem did not respond to requests for comment, nor did the Schaghticoke Tribal Nation. Windsor superintendent Terrell Hill declined to comment. Derby Board of Education chair Jim Gildea told Hearst Connecticut Media in March that the district had “worked closely with the Schaghticoke Tribe to ensure that the manner in which we used our name and mascot was respectful and honored their heritage, tradition and history.” The Schaghticoke Tribe is not federally recognized, although it has applied to be.

In an email to Hearst Connecticut Media, Torrington superintendent Susan Lubomski said Torrington High has not used the “Red Raiders” nickname in “about 10 years,” even as that moniker has appeared frequently in news articles and was listed until recently on the CIAC’s official website. When informed that a Twitter account representing the school’s football team continued to use the handle “THSREDRAIDERS” as of Tuesday, Lubomski said she would “rectify the situation.”