BOE Vote on Guilford Indians Nickname Likely to Follow Hearing
A plaque hanging in the Guilford High School main office depicts a Native American person. The Board of Education is considering a move to eliminate the Indians moniker and imagery. (Photo by Jesse Williams/The Courier | Buy This Photo)
Momentum to change the Guilford High School (GHS) mascot seems to have reached critical mass, with the Board of Education (BOE) indicating that it will likely vote on whether to strike the Indians nickname within a week following a public hearing this Thursday, June 25 that will allow residents to express their thoughts and feelings.
On its website, the BOE indicated that it would hold a meeting on June 29 dealing on the mascot issue, and that “a decision...is likely.”
The first official use of indigenous people’s names and imageries by GHS came in 1944, when the school named its first official yearbook “Menunkatuck.” The mascot was officially changed around 1949. Previous to that, the GHS nickname was the Rams.
Conversations about, or campaigns to change the mascot have arisen in Guilford a handful of times in the last three decades, most recently in 2017 when GHS valedictorian Josh Stern used his graduation speech to call for an end to the mascot.
A planned “community conversation” that would have addressed the mascot issue among other things was canceled this March due to the coronavirus pandemic.
At a virtual meeting on June 22, the BOE invited longtime educator, museum curator, and head of the Akomawt Educational Initiative Chris Newell, along with the Thomas J. Dodd Research Center at UConn Director Dr. Glenn Mitoma and professor of history and languages at UConn Dr. Brendan Kane to answer questions and speak about the history, issues, and potential paths forward for schools with offensive indigenous mascots.
“This conversation is, at the end of the day, [is] not just about a name or a mascot or whether or not you’re the Indians or not the Indians,” Mitoma said, “but it gets to something more fundamental that our entire country is now confronting.”
Newell, Mitoma, and Kane made it clear that having a nickname or mascot like Indians was not only harmful and ugly on its own, but created negative outcomes for all Guilford students as well as serving as an indicator that the district had more deep-seated issues to deal with.
Newell, himself a member of the Passamaquoddy Tribe who grew up on a small reservation in Maine, spoke about both historical and recent abuses of indigenous images and names.
“These things do not go away,” Newell said.
There is nothing respectful about the use of indigenous images or practices, Newell said that no matter how accurately or positively the images are used, non-indigenous people who want to respect native folks should not seek to do so through something like a sports mascot.
“If you really want to honor that history, there are better ways to do it,” he said.
Newell noted that Guilford can’t control how the public treats these images or words, citing recent incidents in which students have held banners reading “Trail of Tears,” referencing the forced relocation of numerous Native nations by the U.S. government in the 1800s, or bringing fake scalps to sporting events.
Mitoma said those who really are trying to understand need to look at the actual effect of their choices, and not focus on their sincerely good intentions.
“I think there is this kind of presumption that the only kind of racist harms that are created are when people are malevolently trying to hurt someone else,” Mitoma said. “But I think we all know in our lives that we don’t have to intend to hurt someone to actually hurt them.”
Mitoma referenced research that shows these mascots are harmful to the learning experience and mental health of children and teams, creating poor outcomes especially for indigenous students, but students of any other race as well.
“[There is] clear evidence that you’re doing active harm to your native students by having these mascots, these names in place,” he said. “So you really need to think about [that], not only because you care about the welfare of you students, but because you care about not getting sued.”
Newell himself said he left Dartmouth College due to depression and stress resulting from being stereotyped. Dartmouth for many years used the Indians nickname as well.
“I constantly had to prove not only my existence, but my existence on campus,” Newell said. “When you’re constantly being seen that way by strangers...it really starts to affect how you see yourself.”
Going forward, Newell and Mitoma sade that it was the BOE’s responsibility to act, in Mitoma’s words, to “steward the educational prospects of the people of Guilford.”
Putting the mascot issue to a vote, something that the school did in the 1990s, is not a helpful, fair, or good practice, Mitoma said.
“It’s always been a terrible idea to put the rights of minorities up for a vote. In fact that’s the very definition of a right is that it’s not subject to majority rule,” Mitoma said.
Both his grandparents had been placed in an internment camp by the United States government in the 1940s due to their Japanese heritage, Mitoma said; that action had broad public support at the time.
Guilford school officials also agreed the mascot needed to launch a broader conversation, for which both Newell and Mitoma pushed. Superintendent of Schools Paul Freeman called it the “tip of the iceberg” toward moving forward with how the schools treat curriculum and understands the experiences of students.
There has been a huge amount of community input so far, according to Guilford school officials. Freeman said that the Guilford community “needs to have a voice in this discourse.”
That public hearing on June 25 will have restrictions to ensure the conversations stays respectful and appropriate, and will require people who have a “current connection to the Guilford community” to comment, according to Freeman.
He encouraged GHS alumni to email him directly with their comments, promising to share them with other BOE members.
The public meeting is planned to start at 7 p.m. on Thursday, June 25. Visit www.guilfordschools.org for virtual attendance information.