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West Hartford School Board Reviewing High School ‘Chieftain’ and ‘Warrior’ Nicknames

The legislature’s budget implementer bill bars towns that utilize team names or mascots associated with Native Americans from receiving slot machine revenue, one of the factors that has prompted the West Hartford Board of Education’s new discussion of the Conard and Hall high school nicknames.

By Ronni Newton

An issue that previously evoked extensive and passionate discussion has been revived by the West Hartford Board of Education, prompted by a combination of a change in Connecticut law and the Board’s own recently-adopted policy, and on Feb. 1, 2022 a vote will be taken on whether or not to continue use of Chieftain and/or Warrior as the nicknames for Conard and Hall high schools respectively.

Public Act 21-2, passed by the state legislature in special session during June, includes the following provision: “For the fiscal year ending June 30, 2023, and each fiscal year thereafter, no municipality shall be paid a grant from the Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan Fund established pursuant to section 3-55i, if a school under the jurisdiction of the board of education for such municipality, or an intramural or interscholastic athletic team associated with such school, uses any name, symbol or image that depicts, refers to or is associated with a state or federally recognized Native American tribe or a Native American individual, custom or tradition, as a mascot, nickname, logo or team name.”

In the current fiscal year, West Hartford received $27,820 in grants, but the impact could be greater in future years.

In March 2015, following extensive discussion by the Board of Education that began the previous fall, as well as research and input by stakeholders in the community, the West Hartford Board of Education voted to allow Conard and Hall to retain their respective Chieftain and Warrior nicknames, provided all Native American imagery, including mascots, were eliminated. Conard had been using Native American symbols until that point, while Hall had already dropped its mascot.

The policy adopted by West Hartford’s Board of Education in 2015 specifically prohibits “the use of mascots, symbols, images, or nicknames that are directly related to or commonly associated with any particular race or ethnicity.”

In the years since the West Hartford Board of Education last voted on the nicknames multiple professional sports teams have changed their names, all but about a dozen high schools schools in the state have dropped names and mascots that were associated with Native Americans, including Northwest Catholic High School (Indians to Lions), Glastonbury High School (Tomahawks to Guardians), Newington High School (Indians to Nor’Easters), and Farmington High School (Indians to River Hawks).

Assistant Superintendent of Administration Andy Morrow said it’s incumbent upon the Board to review the policies again, in light of the state legislation as well as their own “Equity and Anti-Racism Vision,” adopted in 2020, which in part states: “We make a solemn promise to identify and dismantle all elements of systemic racism and historical inequities. We vow to clear paths, with a relentless duty to those in traditionally marginalized groups. We pledge to partner with ALL families in the service of the success of each child.”

Now, in the light of the policy and the state legislation, Morrow said, “Do you go back and change the Chieftain and Warrior names?”

Superintendent Tom Moore said that while high school principals Julio Duarte and Dan Zittoun – both of whom were leading the schools when the decision was made in 2015  – as well as athletic director Jason Siegal, have done a good job de-coupling the nicknames from the imagery, “it still links to the past.”

Conard student representative Andrew Maglio said that while he was just in fifth grade when the decision was last made, he is pretty sure the term “chieftain applies to other cultures.”

Republican Board member Ethan Goldman said he associates the term “warrior” with the military, not with tribes.

It’s “difficult to sever something from the legacy,” Morrow said. “We can kid ourselves and say that ‘chieftain’ can refer to something else,” he said, but that’s parsing words.

“A word in and of itself” may have various meanings, Moore said, but the ties still remain, and the legacy is still there. He noted that Hall traditionally called its student fan group “The Reservation” and while Conard’s current student fan group is called “The Red C,” some of the shirts still have the letters “TF” on them – signifying “Tribe Forever” as a nod to the group’s former name.

The state sees the names as associated with Native Americans, as do the tribes, Morrow said.

While no vote was taken Tuesday, some Board members expressed their opinions about the nicknames.

“There is a compelling reason to change the names,” Democrat Jason Chang said. The issue has continued to surface since 2015, and while the money involved at this point is rather minuscule, as an underfunded district West Hartford deserves as much money as possible. In addition, he said, changing the names, a desire which has been communicated by the tribes to the state, is strongly in support of the district’s anti-bias policies.

“This has a definite benefit in aligning with our curriculum and the district’s stated commitments of honoring the indigenous tribes and nations,” Chang said.

“Where does it end?” Goldman asked. He said next there will be a move to change the name of King Philip Middle School, or PETA may have a problem with animal names.

Democrat Ari Steinberg said when she looked back at the Board’s recently-passed policy, she is now in favor of changing the names. “My interpretation of the name ‘warrior,’ while I may not see it as disrespectful, it’s not really my decision to make,” she said.

An initial proposal to have the board vote on Jan. 18, 2022 on whether or not to change one or both of the nicknames was modified in order to provide additional time to obtain feedback from students and others in the community.

Republican Gayle Harris said parents have accused the Board of not listening, and asked that there be enough opportunity to get input. “When this was last brought up this was one of the biggest Board meetings with parents coming in here,” she said.

Democrat Clare Neseralla also thought there should be more time after the holidays to get feedback. “I’m just curious where the student body stands … the current student body where do they stand?”

The Board approved by a vote of 6-1 a “motion to address Public Act 21-2 with a vote on the use of ‘Chieftain’ and ‘Warrior’ and create a process, if necessary, to adopt new measures on Feb. 1.” Goldman voted against the measure.

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1 Comment

  • Many many streets in West Hartford are named after Native American Tribes. I grew up on the corner of Mohegan and Brewster. I attended Native American named King Philip. We have the Metacomet Trail and Talcott Ridge. Hall and Conard have great Lacrosse teams, which is a Native American Sport. We have many town residents as veteran and wounded warriors. Our Joint Chiefs of Staff advise the President. Many groups identify as warriors, wounded warriors, social justice warriors, Rainbow warriors, cancer fighters. Our Black Buffalo soldiers who fought Native Americans are often referred to as warriors. Our Town Manager referred to our veterans as warriors just this past Memorial Day. The definition of warrior among Native Americans is much more like one who performs good deeds for the betterment of society. Our Native American warriors who are U.S. Veterans proudly wear cultural and U.S. military emblems. Why don’t we just rebrand and make clear that our teams are referring to all who have fought to make for a better society and world and to survive, serving in our Armed Forces and in civilian life. Maybe an alternative could be Hall High – The Force. Maybe our Lacrosse programs should be named Pequot Chieftans and Mohegan Warriors to give honor to the Native American sport of Lacrosse.

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