Richard Velky, chief of the Schaghticoke Tribal Nation, met with the West Hartford Board of Education recently to share his thought about use of the Chieftain and Warrior nicknames, as well as the use of Native American mascots and other imagery.
By Ronni Newton
The West Hartford Board of Education has no plans to reconsider a decision they made in February to retire the Conard and Hall high school nicknames, but members did have a chance to hear from the chief of the Schaghticoke Tribal Nation during their May 3 meeting, and he urged them to not only keep the Chieftain and Warrior names, but also reinstate the mascots and other imagery.
Chief Richard Velky, who leads one of Connecticut’s five state-recognized Native American tribal nations, said, “We are honored in one sense that by of all the names you could choose, you chose to represent Native Americans.”
The Board had voted on Feb. 1, 2022 to change both high school nicknames. The vote was 5-2 along party lines to retire the Chieftain name, and 4-3 to retire the Warrior name, with Democrat Deb Polun joining the two Republicans who voted to keep Warrior as Hall’s nickname.
Assistant Superintendent for Education Andy Morrow told We-Ha.com Tuesday that the Hall and Conard communities have been engaging in a process of selecting new nicknames and mascots and selections should be finalized this month. The Board of Education plans to give final approval to the choices at its June 7 meeting – the last meeting of the academic year. The intent is for implementation of the new nicknames and mascots to begin prior to the start of fall sports for the 2022-2023 academic year.
A motion to reconsider the school nicknames sparked outcry from members of the community after the Board posted it as an agenda item for its Dec. 7, 2021. The proposal that led to the Feb. 2, 2022 vote was, according to Board Chair Lorna Thomas-Farquharson, a continuation of the process that began in 2015, when the Board decided, with a unanimous vote that followed an extensive public outreach process, to maintain the Conard and Hall nicknames but remove all Native American imagery.
“What brings us here tonight is the use of the names,” Velky said during a presentation at the Board’s May 3 meeting. “This state tried to hold genocide on my people. They tried to erase us and they are doing it today.”
Velky said he is not offended by logos, but rather by what the state has done to the Native Americans. The Schaghticoke Tribal Nation has been fighting for federal recognition for decades, but has not had the support of state officials.
“Stop it, don’t allow them to do to you what they are doing to us,” Velky said.
The Board of Education had asked for input from all five state-recognized Tribal Nations last fall prior to re-addressing the nicknames, but Velky’s response came on March 15, after the decision to change the names was made. Velky said May 3 that he did not receive the letter sent in October 2021. The response he sent in March 2022 was a blanket resolution approving the respectful use of Native American names and imagery, “as a public means of sustaining Native American culture and history of Connecticut’s first citizens.”
West Hartford resident Scott Zweig, an attorney who has been leading an effort to get signatures on a petition requesting the Town Council address the issue or allow the electors to decide, has been speaking with Velky and hoped he would have been permitted to address the Board in April regarding his thoughts about the names and mascots, but Velky would have only had three minutes to speak during the public comment session and did not feel that was adequate.
Following a lengthy debate on a motion raised by Republican Ethan Goldman on April 19, the Board voted 4-3 in favor of inviting the leaders of Connecticut’s five nationally- or state-recognized Native American tribal nations, or their designees, to speak at the May 3, 2022 meeting regarding their opinions about mascots, nicknames, and imagery.
Invitations to address the Board of Education on May 3 were also sent to the Mohegan Tribal Council, the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation, the Eastern Pequot Tribal Nation, and the Golden Hill Paugussett Clan Mother, in addition to the Schaghticoke Tribal Nation, but the others either did not respond to the invitation or were unable to attend.
Velky also responded to questions from Board members during the May 3 meeting.
Polun asked what he thought about the extension of nicknames and mascots to actions that could be considered mockery, like the “tomahawk chop.” Velky said that while not all tribal leaders agree, he believes that when teams or fans have used the tomahawk chop, or a mascot dressed like a Native American chief riding his horse, it’s when rooting for their teams, and for celebration. “It wasn’t done in disgrace to a tribe, it was done in support of a team.”
Republican Gayle Harris asked Velky to confirm that he believes use of the names is honorary rather than demeaning, and he responded that “I’m afraid for you not to use them. Not to use them today may seem like a very small thing … but not to use them today what are we not going to use 20 years from today?” Velky said it’s important not to use the names in order to offend, but he is afraid that students now in first or second grade won’t even know what a Native American is, or what a warrior or chieftain is.
One of the speakers during the public comment session had brought up use of the term “squaw,” and Velky said that was a name he would not recommend. When asked by student representative Avery Woods Weber why, he said it was an insult to women, worse than calling someone a prostitute. Regarding warrior and chieftain, he noted “Native Americans don’t have the corner market on using warriors and chieftains … warrior is a fighter … chieftain is a leader of his clan.”
Democrat Jason Chang, who has strongly supported changing the Conard and Hall nicknames, said what he thinks is important is including education about Native Americans in the curriculum. “I really wrestle with the knowledge that we need to do more. … We have folks that want to keep the names but haven’t learned the history.”
Velky said both are important. “I wouldn’t want you to think for a moment that we are asking you to keep the mascots and do away with education … because the education is going to provide the information about the symbol and the colors that you are using. … You marry them together and the curriculum is 100% right.”
Velky thanked the Board for allowing to speak and wanting to hear the other side. “I wish more towns in the state would take your lead,” he said, and at least try to understand the decisions they are making. He drew applause when he asked the Board to “really reconsider reestablishing the names that have honored this great town of West Hartford for many years.”
Request to rescind the votes
The Board of Education does not have any items related to the high school nicknames on the agenda for its May 17 meeting, but Tuesday afternoon Zweig shared a letter sent to all Board members requesting that the Feb. 1 vote regarding the Hall and Conard nicknames be rescinded immediately and all actions to change names ceased “because the actions of the Board lacked due process and constitute unlawful violations of Board policies.”
The letter, attached below as a PDF, states that the decision violates Policy 1700, which pertains to “School Nicknames and Images” and permits the continued use of Chieftain and Warrior. That policy has neither been amended nor repealed, Zweig’s later states.
Zweig also asserts that the Board is in violation of its “Educational Equity” Policy 1800, because it has not applied the policy equitably and addressed continued use of the name of King Philip – a Native American Chief – for one of the town’s middle schools.
The Board has failed to have two public readings of the proposal to change the nicknames, which are substantive amendments to the existing Policy 1700, and in violation of Policy 8310,”Formulations, Adoption, Amendment of Policies and Bylaws.”
And, Zweig asserts in his letter, the Board also violates Policy 8120, “Limits of Authority,” because they directed the principals at the high schools to appoint committees to develop new names although the Board is prohibited from “command[ing] the service of any school district employee.”
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