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West Hartford Board Votes: ‘Warrior’ and ‘Chieftain’ Names to Remain

The West Hartford Board of Education unanimously approved a policy change that will allow Conard and Hall to retain their ‘Chieftain’ and ‘Warrior’ names, subject to certain conditions including dropping any Native American imagery.

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By Ronni Newton

The debate about use of Native American imagery and names for Conard and Hall high schools has been settled and the result will become part of the West Hartford Board of Education’s policy following a unanimous vote Tuesday night that will permit retention of the names but not Conard’s mascot.

The board read and then voted on three proposed policy changes crafted by members Bruce Putterman and Terry Schmitt with input from West Hartford’s Assistant Corporation Counsel Kimberly Boneham and Assistant Superintendent for Administration Andrew Morrow.

A capacity crowd, eager for the conclusion of this long-standing debate, attended the meeting. Each board member read a prepared statement, and engaged in an extremely civil discussion of all three policy options before voting.

Option no. 1, retaining the Chieftain and Warrior names and allowing continued use of Native American mascots/logos provided that “all school-sanctioned and school-funded names, mascots, symbols, and images shall be developed in conjunction and collaboration with local Native American leaders,” was defeated 4-2, with Republicans Mark Zydanowicz and Jay Sarzen casting the votes in favor of that option.

The vote was 3-3 for option no. 2, which would have eliminated the existing Chieftain and Warrior names/mascots/logos and adopting policy that “use of mascots, symbols, images, or nicknames that are directly related to or commonly associated with any particular race or ethnicity is prohibited.” Board Chair and Democrat Dr. Mark Overmyer-Velazquez, Vice Chair and Democrat Tammy Exum, and Democrat Bruce Putterman voted in favor of the option, while Democrat Terry Schmitt joined the two Republicans in voting against it.

Option no. 3, considered by all parties to be the compromise, also prohibits use of mascots and names that are related to or commonly associated with any particular race or ethnicity, however, “acknowledging the long-standing tradition that has developed around the use of the names ‘Chieftain’ and ‘Warrior,’ the terms ‘Chieftain’ and ‘Warrior’ are expressly exempted from this prohibition. The prohibition shall apply, however, to mascots, symbols, and images used in connection with the names ‘Chieftain’ and ‘Warrior.’ It shall also apply to ALL other names or nicknames, including but not limited to school-sanctioned clubs, organizations, or activities.”

Option no. 3 was approved unanimously, and after a second reading and vote on March 25, will officially become part of the Board of Education’s policy. Hall dropped its Native American mascot/logo in 2012, but a variety of Native American imagery has remained in use at Conard. In order to comply with the new policy, both high school principals will appoint a committee of school administrators, teachers, non-certified employees, students, parents, and other members of the school community, to develop new logos and related images by June 15, 2015.

“Student leaders, teachers, and administrators at both schools and residents of West Hartford across our town have helped me to better understand two fundamental truths concerning this topic: 1.) Native Americans are not mascots, and 2.) Many of our town’s residents have long standing commitments and deep emotional attachments to the school mascot names.” Overmyer-Velazquez said at the beginning of the meeting.

“These lessons have been confirmed through my conversations with Native Americans themselves, local leaders such as Chairman of the Mohegan Tribe, Kevin ‘Red Eagle’ Brown, and national figures like the Executive Director of the National Congress of American Indians. Coaches, alums, faith leaders, scholars, and many members of our extended community have all been part of this conversation. Those discussions and the public forum have helped me to see that there are many sides and points of view about this topic that deserve to be heard and respected,” said Overmyer-Velazquez, who added that he expressed a personal preference for option no. 2.

Schmitt said that although he thinks that the expropriation of Native American imagery is disrespectful, he was enlightened by the “articulate, impassioned, and really quite convincing arguments for keeping the name ‘Chieftain,'” including the claim that the name is not a term just involving Native Americans.

“I listened to graduates and coaches speak about the value system that their school applies to what it means to be a Chieftain, and there wasn’t any thing inherent in what they shared that denigrated, or for that matter, necessarily had anything to do, with Native Americans. So, I found myself developing a great deal of respect for their efforts, their civility, their passion, and even their logic,” said Schmitt.

Exum said that although the words Chieftan and Warrior are “terms of valor and greatness,” if they are associated with Native American imagery, “once you see it, you can’t un-see it.” She said that the most respectful option is to compromise and keep the names, but redesign the images, which will also finally allow each school to be branded with one cohesive image.

“At the beginning of this process, I was in favor of the status quo – doing nothing at all. After hearing the eloquent statements for change – from both those who support retention and removal of names and imagery – I have modified my initial position to reflect this new understanding,” said Jay Sarzen, who said that he personally preferred option no. 1, but would also support option no. 3 as a “compromise that incorporates both sides’ positions.”

“I view this option as an opportunity for us in West Hartford to be a leader on this issue,” said Sarzen.

Zydanowicz said that the “Chieftain” and especially the “Warrior” are nicknames that do not only pertain to Native Americans. “In fact as part of the military, I’m a ‘warrior’ for our country and my boss is the commander and ‘chief.’ They are names that are not offensive to anyone,” Zydanowicz said.

“Before our community dialogue about images and nicknames began, I thought names Chieftains and Warriors were just names. But through this process I learned that they also represent a deeply held sense of tradition. And I value tradition,” said Putterman, who added that before the dialogue began he also said that in debating the issue we weren’t being too sensitive but rather not “sensitive enough.”

In a debate about tradition vs. senstivity, Putterman said he believes “in a multicultural community, in a nation that is awakening to the insidiousness of institutional racism, that cultural sensitivity trumps tradition.” However, he said that he would be willing to “support a compromise in which we keep the names, but eliminate all other references to Native American culture now and in the future. To be clear, my support for the compromise would be based on the understanding that we will not develop logos or create school club names that in any way reference Native American culture, no matter how incidentally.”

Putterman said that as a marketing professional with lots of branding experience, he welcomes the opportunity to help develop new images for the schools that “avoid referencing Native American culture.”

Conard chemistry teacher and lacrosse coach Bill Condon was the only member of the public to comment at the meeting. He spoke eloquently about how we’ve come a long way in this debate. Condon said that although Conard has not officially had an official logo, “the ‘Chieftain’ is a worthy thing to be.”

“This has been an exhilarating and invigorating process, a process that – despite some ugly moments – has ultimately yielded what I think is the best result for our students, schools, and community: that a deliberate, inclusive, and patient open dialog conducted democratically and respectfully can right past injustices while setting a new course of reflection, learning, healing, and building new traditions. I am very proud of what we have done in West Hartford” said Overmyer-Velazquez.

The second reading and final vote on the change will take place at a special meeting now scheduled to precede a hearing on the budget on March 25.

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