It Is Time to End the Use of American Indian Mascots, Imagery, and Names in Connecticut Athletics
(HARTFORD, CT) – The Connecticut Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities (CHRO) is focused on eliminating the racist practice of using American Indian/Alaska Native (AI/AN) names, symbols, and imagery as school mascots in Connecticut. The CHRO is one of the country’s oldest governmental civil rights agencies and is charged with the enforcement of our state’s antidiscrimination laws. We investigate and litigate cases of racial discrimination in public schools and provide training on compliance with state and federal civil rights laws. It is our agency’s position that it is no longer tenable to treat any ethnic or racial group as appropriated symbols for school athletics.
AI/AN mascots are inherently reductive and invite racist conduct. A sports mascot is a symbol animated by its fans. Reflected in an image, a name, and often a costume, a mascot is, at its core, a caricature of the group it aims to represent. AI/AN mascots reduce the diaspora of indigenous communities to one stereotypical image and label. That image is then brought to life not by the community who it supposedly represents, but by players and fans who know little about AI/AN cultures and identities. Fans impersonate and mock AI/AN people, often resorting to stereotypes and slurs when cheering or jeering teams during sporting events. Fans refer to teams as “tribes”, engage in the “Tomahawk chop”, bang “war drums” and wear “war paint.” These acts are completely devoid of any cultural context and amount to cultural appropriation.
A recent University of Michigan study reiterated that the continued use of AI/AN mascots establishes an unwelcome, hostile learning environment for AI/AN students that affirms negative images and stereotypes promoted in mainstream society. It further found that “mascots, regardless of whether they are perceived positively by Native youth, are harmful to the psychological well-being of these youth.” In particular, the study concluded that exposure to AI/AN mascots resulted in lower self-esteem among AI/AN students, and that the continued use of AI/AN mascots negatively impacted AI/AN students’ visions of themselves.
Further, this study also showed that the educational experiences of non-Native students are greatly compromised when they are not provided with a true history or understanding of AI/AN communities. Non-Native students are more likely to associate AI/AN communities with negative stereotypes because of exposure to AI/AN mascots, creating implicit bias in non-Native individuals. This impact was shown regardless of whether the non-Native students found the use of the name to be “respectful.”
Connecticut has come to a reckoning point on this issue. Citizens and school boards from all around the state have acted in the past year to remove AI/AN mascots, imagery, and names from their schools. Watertown, Newington, Farmington, RHAM, Glastonbury, North Haven, and others have all either ended, or moved towards ending this racist practice. Grassroots efforts around the state are now being bolstered by both the tribes and elected officials such as State Senator Cathy Osten.
CHRO Executive Director Tanya Hughes said, “The practice of using American Indian names and imagery as part of the educational experience has gone on for too long in Connecticut. Using these names is an act of racist appropriation, and that is not even considering the mounting evidence of quantifiable harm being done to all students. While we understand this may be a challenge for some communities, it is time for this practice to end.” CHRO Deputy Director Cheryl Sharp said, “Connecticut must join the chorus of national voices that denounce cultural appropriation and call for an end to derogatory and harmful stereotypes of Native American people.”
For further discussion on this topic, please view a recent panel discussion co-hosted by the CHRO and UCONN Law School entitled, “Reimagining Respect: The Elimination of American Indian Imagery in Connecticut Athletics.” The recorded panel can be accessed via the CHRO website at: https://portal.ct.gov/CHRO/Education-and-Outreach/Outreach/Reimagining-Respect-Webinar