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'The Warrior And The Bird': Connecticut Town Remains Divided Over Mascot

An effort by Republican board of education members in Killingly, Connecticut to reinstate a high school mascot offensive to Native Americans has stalled.

After 80 years of Killingly High School sports teams being known as the “Redmen,” the town’s board of education decided this past summer that it would drop the name, turning town teams into the Red Hawks. But then, Republicans who ran on the issue in November's municipal elections took control of the board.

In two votes which came after hours of public comment Wednesday night, Red Hawks was dropped. But supporters of the old name fell one vote short of reinstatement, leaving the town -- for now -- without a mascot.

Doug Farrow was one of the Republicans who voted in favor of reinstating the name at the board meeting – the first one since Election Day.

“Personally, I felt a mandate from the November 5 election that a lot of people just wanted to bring the Redmen name back,” Farrow said. “But we didn’t want to do it status quo. We wanted to try and do it better this time and that meant honoring the tradition of the Redmen warriors.”

Hoween Flexer was partially relieved after the five hour meeting – she thought for sure that the majority would carry the vote to reinstate. Flexer, a Democrat on the board, is fighting against a move back to the old name.

“A lot of people – students and board members included – have been vilified and the debate has not been civil. So, hopefully going forward, it will be civil,” she said.

"We cannot ignore the fact that the imagery depicted in your logo is inaccurate to the people it is supposed to represent," said Barbi Gardiner.
Credit Frankie Graziano / Connecticut Public Radio
Connecticut Public Radio
"We cannot ignore the fact that the imagery depicted in your logo is inaccurate to the people it is supposed to represent," said Barbi Gardiner.

Before the board voted on the issue of reinstatement, it accepted public comment, which lasted four hours.

Barbi Gardiner, a Killingly High alum who’s also a member of the Chaubunagungamaug band of Nipmuc Native Americans disputes that the Redmen name honors the town’s native history.

“While I recognize that your mascot is a strong part of your local identity and acknowledge that this change is painful for some to consider, we cannot ignore the fact that the imagery depicted in your logo is inaccurate to the people it is supposed to represent,” Gardiner said.

It was comments from the Nipmuc tribal nation made last summer pushed the original name change over the top. A letter signed by the tribe’s council written to the town’s superintendent of schools denounced the use of Native American mascots, “even when the organization using said mascots believes they are in some way flattering or used as a means of honoring Native Americans.”

"We don't want to be recognized by our skin color or some stereotype," Gardiner, the councilwoman for the Chaubunagungamaug band of Nipmucs, said to Connecticut Public Radio shortly after delivering her remarks.

A majority of the people who spoke at the marathon meeting represented Gardiner’s side.

But Tammy Wakefield, a 1987 graduate of the school, wasn’t siding with Gardiner. She doesn’t like the timing of the name change, saying that when she was at school, other high schools didn’t worry about playing Killingly. But Wakefield said that’s no longer the case and she pointed to the school’s football team advancing to a state championship for the second time in three years.

“Now, when we get off the bus, they go, ‘Oh, it’s Killingly’ – not because they disrespect us anymore – they fear us,” Wakefield said. “To be honest with you, I would rather be a warrior than a bird.”

But the Red Hawks name didn’t survive the meeting. The Republicans won a measure that overturned an October vote to implement that name.

Then came the final drama.

After eight of the nine board members had voted, the reinstatement of the old Redmen nickname stood at four-to-four. But then, the ninth member, Republican Craig Hanford, abstained, leaving this issue deadlocked.

Hanford told Connecticut Public Radio after the meeting that he wasn’t happy with the way the town was divided over the issue and that he hoped both names that townspeople supported could be featured by the school in some way.

For now, Killingly has no mascot. Flexer, the Democrat on the board, thinks that’s a shame because a student majority decided on the Red Hawks.

“The students made their decision and it’s disappointing that we have forgotten about our main focus, which is students,” Flexer said. “They have moved forward and it would’ve been helpful had we done the same.”

Frankie Graziano is the host of The Wheelhouse, focusing on how local and national politics impact the people of Connecticut.

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