Student fan groups at West Hartford’s Hall and Conard high schools have made recent efforts to bring back Native American imagery.
By Ronni Newton
West Hartford’s two public high schools received logo-makeovers last year that eliminated all Native American imagery, but small groups of students at both high schools have recently started taking orders for newly designed t-shirts, garnering attention and reigniting a controversy that the Board of Education and administrators had hoped was in the past.
Hall student government president, senior Matt Wilcox, said that new designs with Native American imagery surfaced about two weeks ago, and were being sold through social media. The shirts, blue with an Indian head in the center and the words “The Rez” printed on them, have not been printed yet, Wilcox said, and he believes that only a small number of students have purchased them.
The Rez is a Hall student fan group that has existed for many years, but has not been officially sanctioned as a school club, at least for the past several years. Since the beginning of the 2015-16 school year, the official shirts for students who are part of the organization were white t-shirts with “The Rez” in blue lettering, but no imagery.
“[Members of The Rez] were trying to sell them, but the leaders [of The Rez] weren’t into the drama and negative attention, and several of them stepped down Friday afternoon,” Wilcox said. He said that the leaders met with Hall Principal Dan Zittoun prior to stepping down, and he later saw some of the former leaders giving money back to students who had ordered the shirts.
The West Hartford Board of Education, after much deliberation and public input including a community forum that attracted 60 speakers and more than 250 attendees, voted in March 2015 to allow Conard and Hall to retain the Chieftain and Warrior names, with several provisions that specifically require any school-sanctioned and funded imagery to be culturally-sensitive and not associated with any particular ethnic group. The policy adopted in March also states that: “The use of such mascots, symbols, images, or nicknames by independent, non-school-sanctioned clubs and organizations is strongly discouraged.”
Wilcox, who is a multi-sport varsity athlete as well as student body president, said that he respects the Board of Education’s decision and doesn’t support bringing back Native American imagery.
“A lot of people at Hall are still passionate about the Indian head as a mascot,” Wilcox said. Many had siblings, parents, and other relatives who considered the logo part of Hall’s tradition, he said, and the current class of seniors is the first to not have used it at all.
Hall officially stopped using the Indian head logo in June 2012, but Wilcox said it had continued to pop up unofficially, including on The Rez shirts. The Rez shirts ordered this fall were the first not to include it, and Wilcox thought that was a sign of a change.
When Native American hip-hop Frank Waln appeared in West Hartford last year, and spoke to the students about Native Americans not wanting to be represented as mascots, Wilcox said it had a great impact on him as well as many other students. Studying Native American history in AP U.S. History also opened his eyes.
Another change at Hall in the fall of 2015 was the creation of an officially-school sanctioned fan group, “The Armory.” Senior Lindsay Penn is one of The Armory leaders.
Penn said that The Armory is still a small group, and has been trying to gain support among students through a Facebook group and through selling its own t-shirts that use the new Hall logo. “We wanted to give an alternate choice to people who didn’t want to be part of The Rez,” Penn said.
The Armory tries to support all of Hall’s teams, she said, whereas The Rez has traditionally attended primarily boys sports. “Our goal is to be the cheering section – but school-sanctioned,” she said.
Penn said she had hoped that The Rez would have changed its name this year, but that didn’t happen. “Then when they brought back the throwback shirt, that was rebellion,” she said.
“Two of The Rez leaders stepped down because it wasn’t a group they wanted to be part of anymore,” said Penn, and she thinks that’s a sign of progress. There had been a lot of bandwagoning surrounding the shirts with the Indian head, she said, and she’s hopeful that the issue will eventually smooth out. “A lot of seniors have now backed down because it has become a major news story,” she said.
“I understand that there have been some glitches along the way, and people are having trouble giving up the tradition,” Wilcox said, but he is confident that the Hall High community will comply.
Across town at Conard High School, leaders of the student-led fan group have also designed a new shirt with Native American imagery.
Conard’s fan group, led by seniors, changed its name to “The Red C” this year. The group has been an official school club, with an advisor, and dropped its former name “The Tribe” in response to the Board of Education policy change last spring. The Tribe had become a large and energetic supporter of Conard sports teams since it was started by members of the Class of 2013, and previous t-shirts, which only seniors could purchase, used Native American imagery.
“I’m disappointed in the whole thing,” said Conard senior and student council Co-President Brian Wilson. He and Co-President Mamata Malla emailed a joint letter to all students Friday afternoon in an effort to pre-empt the ordering of new shirts that said “Return of The Tribe” with an Indian head image in the center.
Wilson said that by sending out the letter, he was hoping to prevent what happened at Hall.
Hall’s new t-shirt design had been shared on social media, and had been brought to the attention of Waln, who had performed and spoken to students in West Hartford last year. Waln’s fans retweeted it reportedly thousands of times, bringing the issue to the attention of the media.
“We sent out the letter because students didn’t know, and weren’t clear about the Board of Education’s policy. We wanted to ask them, ‘Are the shirts really worth it?'” Wilson said.
Wilson said that the fan group leaders thought that if they officially disassociated themselves as a club, then the Board of Education’s policy wouldn’t apply to them. “But if [the new shirts become] a distraction to the educational environment, they have the right to ban it,” Wilson said.
He and Malla are afraid that Conard will officially lose the privilege of being called Chieftains, which is a “privilege, not a right,” Wilson said.
He said that after the letter was sent out, many seniors were asking for their money back. Wilson said that he thinks the Conard fan group started the movement to change back to The Tribe and order new shirts in response to what Hall was proposing, so they wouldn’t appear to be the “weaker” fan group.
Wilson said as a senior himself, it’s tough. Several of the fan group leaders are his close friends, and he has spoken personally with them. “All the leaders know the consequences of what they do can hurt students in years to come.”
Wilson spoke out last year in favor of maintaining the Native American imagery, but that’s not the point now, he said. “As leaders, we need to show some respect,” Wilson said.
Board of Education Chair Mark Overmyer-Velazquez said his concern is that discussion has returned to this topic, rather than the topic of educating students.
“We as a community rigorously debated and discussed this, and were in a hopeful place with the compromise,” Overmyer-Velazquez said.
“I understand the assertion of free speech, but this becomes a distraction to education,” said Overmyer-Velazquez. At the same time, he said, it is a reminder that “racism and discrimination and vehemently exclusionary practices still exist.”
What the students are trying to do, Overmyer-Velazquez said, is just damaging the reputations of the schools. Fan groups are supposed to show school spirit, not cause division. He said that coaches at both high schools have done a lot of work with students in the past year and must be very angry and frustrated to have these discussions resurface.
Conard Principal Julio Duarte would not comment, but did confirm that he met Friday with leaders of The Red C as well as the student council presidents, and that students have requested a meeting with Superintendent Tom Moore to further discuss the matter.
Wilson said shirts have not been ordered, and that the decision on what to do will be held off until students meet with Moore on Monday.
“Let’s prove to the Board of Education we can respect the privilege of being called Chieftains,” Wilson and Malla wrote in their letter. “A Chieftain by definition is not just a Native American; therefore we do not need a visual image to display our Chieftain pride and school spirit. A Chieftain is powerful, respected, and most importantly, a leader. Let’s be true Chieftains and lead as we face this tough decision. Let’s show the Board of Education that they can trust us to step away from Native American imagery and uphold the policy they have adopted,” the letter stated.
The message from Hall’s student president was similar.
“If we can’t be Warriors without the Indian head, we can’t be warriors at all,” said Wilcox.
“I believe that the Hall High community is a diverse and welcoming community which values the differences among people. Because of that we can make that transition to not having that logo anymore,” said Wilcox.
“I want us to move on and talk about other things. This is an amazing district, Overymyer-Velazquez said.
In a follow up email, Overmyer-Velazquez added, “It strikes me that in the larger context of this, we just had an amazing Martin Luther King Day celebration showcasing much of the best of our district and also a series of human rights events at both schools. It is that context that we, the media, and the community should be highlighting and celebrating – moments of thoughtful introspection and action for social justice and racial equality.”
West Hartford Public Schools administration would not comment publicly, except to issue the following statement:
The West Hartford Public Schools requires that all school-sanctioned and school-funded clubs and organizations respect diverse cultural values and the importance of inclusion. Unfortunately, a small number of students have chosen to selfishly seek attention by deliberately continuing to promote an unofficial student group with a name and imagery that is inappropriate and racially insensitive. This attention-seeking behavior is deliberately designed to provoke the larger student body and the community.
These students do not represent our schools and the overwhelming majority of our caring and compassionate students. Instead of these actions, we would prefer to be highlighting and congratulating the two Hall High School seniors who were identified this week as National Presidential Scholar Candidates. This prestigious award is a testament to their hard work and dedication and we are proud to have them represent both Hall High School and West Hartford.
Neither the leaders of the The Rez nor of the Conard student fan group would comment publicly.
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