High school mascots for today's sports teams

When is a compliment not a compliment?

When it is inexcusably ignorant of the dignity and true feelings of the person receiving the supposed praise; when, ultimately, it comes to feel like a sly putdown, or worse — a belittling insult. Yes, even if it wasn't meant that way.

The more 21st-century Americans learn about how Native Americans have been treated by the majority, the more enlightened we should all be about why "Redmen" or "Red Raiders" or "Warhawks" or, incredibly, "Tomahawks," might be objectionable to them. Those are among the names of Connecticut high school names referring to "Indians" and related mascots, more than a dozen of them. But that is slowly changing.

At the behest of students who wanted a mascot they could get behind, the Manchester Board of Education recently agreed to change the mascot for the high school teams to the Red Hawks. The team name had been "Indians" since the 1940s. Like some other Connecticut high schools, the Manchester teams had been making gradual changes for some time — specifically, keeping the name while losing earlier logos in favor of a big red "M." Next they will design a new logo.

It is the logos, often a profile view of a warpainted warrior with feathered headdress, that seem to cause a major part of the pain among people of Native American heritage. No one wants to be stereotyped. In Guilford and locally in Montville, where the teams are still known as "Indians," logos are now a capital letter — G or M, respectively — with the feathers attached at the familiar angle that our eyes recognize as an icon referring to Native garb.

As the home territory of several Native American tribes, eastern Connecticut may be more closely connected to their heritage than some other parts of the state, and thus more awake to what's in a name. The Montville public schools and the Mohegan tribe have wisely stayed in touch about the way the "Indians" name is used for a high school that many tribal members themselves attended and played for.

Warrior-like nicknames for high school teams are not uniquely Native American imagery, of course. East Lyme has Vikings, Waterford has Lancers, New London has Whalers; all of those evoke strong, fierce males wielding sharp objects. But all three describe what someone did, not who they were. None of those paint people of a shared ancestry to the point of stereotype.

And a logo is, of course, a stereotype. It is not a photo of the quarterback or a former slugger.` It is the Everyman — or boy, girl, or woman — of the team's proud past and determined future.

That notion should lead to the right question for a school board to ask when students present a petition to change the name of the high school teams. What mascot sets the right goals and values for the young men and women being educated? What will be inclusive, inspiring, and uniquely right for this school? It doesn't have to be serious-minded, just fair. Among teams that have made the change from "Indians" are the Nathan Hale-Ray Noises, coming on appropriately loud for a team but also cleverly referencing the mysterious sounds that emanate from the ground in Moodus.

Up north, the Killingly Board of Education has recently been considering changing the "Redmen"  team name and has asked the Nipmuc tribe to say what should be done; tribal members have previously said it should change. If the school board does make a change, it would also be appropriate to choose a gender-neutral name that equally recognizes the female athletes whose sports teams represent the same school as the boys.

Students want a mascot they can get behind, not one that stereotypes or excludes. That's something to cheer about.

The Day editorial board meets regularly with political, business and community leaders and convenes weekly to formulate editorial viewpoints. It is composed of President and Publisher Tim Dwyer, Editorial Page Editor Paul Choiniere, Managing Editor Tim Cotter, Staff Writer Julia Bergman and retired deputy managing editor Lisa McGinley. However, only the publisher and editorial page editor are responsible for developing the editorial opinions. The board operates independently from the Day newsroom.

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