January 12, 2020

Officials Called Redmen a Racist Mascot. Then Voters Weighed In
In July, the school board in a small Connecticut town called Killingly took what local officials said was a long-overdue step: removing the name of the school mascot, Redmen, which some Native Americans have deemed racist.Students did not seem to rebel against the change, even agreeing in the fall to adopt a new name, the Redhawks.But then the adults had their say.Residents, apparently angered by the removal of the Redmen mascot, flocked to the polls in November and gave Republicans control of the town council and school board.The new school board quickly voted to rescind the Redhawks name. And this week, at a contentious five-hour meeting, the board voted 5-4 to reinstate Redmen, which first became the school mascot in 1939.The board turned aside pleas from students, administrators and Native American residents. No constituents favored the Redmen name, people at the meeting said."The people of Killingly spoke on Election Day of what they wanted," Jason Muscara, one of the new Republican board members who voted to reinstate Redmen, said in an interview."I recognize there have been many Native Americans who have voiced those concerns," he said. "But I would say there is an equal amount of Native people who feel the opposite."Still, the decision stirred a backlash among some students and officials in Killingly, which is in the northeast of the state and has a population of about 17,000 people.More than a partisan split, the Redmen debate also highlighted a generational disconnect. On one side stood old guard alumni, steeped in notions of history and legacy. On the other are Generation Z-era students, raised in a time of heightened cultural sensitivity and inclusivity."We look racist," said Soudalath Souvanhnathan, a senior at Killingly High School. "This is not what I want our school to be known for. And all because people don't want to let go of tradition. This has made Killingly a laughingstock."Hoween Flexer, a Democratic member of the Killingly School Board, said, "The students, faculty and Native Americans told us what they wanted us not to do, and we did it anyway."The decision was an unusual turnabout in the decades-long campaign by some Native American groups and their supporters to pressure school and government officials and sporting teams to end the use of Native American names and imagery for mascots.In May, Maine banned the use of Native American mascots in its public schools and colleges. Similar measures were adopted in California, Massachusetts and Oregon.The topic has long been a point of debate in professional sporting leagues. The owner of the Washington Redskins, Dan Snyder, has vowed to never change the team's name, drawing considerable ire.On the other hand, last year the Cleveland Indians organization announced that it would no longer use imagery of Chief Wahoo, a cartoonish caricature of a Native American, on its uniforms.Tara Houska, a lawyer who is Native American and the co-founder of Not Your Mascots, an advocacy group fighting against the stereotypical representation of Native Americans in sports, said she was surprised by the move in Killingly."This is the first time I've ever encountered a situation where a school board, school and alumni have a conversation, reach a point, adopt a new mascot and then go backward," Houska said. "Basically they've said, 'Yes, we know it's racist and offensive, but we're actually going to go back to that because we like it more.'"Still, Raymond Wood II, a Native American and longtime Republican town councilman, said he supported the Redmen name."It's never been racist or derogatory against Native Americans," Wood said.He said Killingly's use of Redmen highlighted what was best about the town -- and the United States in general."This is a melting pot," he said. "We take what's best and incorporate it into our culture. That's what Killingly did. They took something that is honorable and respectful and celebrated that."This article originally appeared in The New York Times.(C) 2020 The New York Times Company
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