Killingly High School sports teams will once again be known as “Redmen” despite a long battle to ditch the name that’s offensive to Native Americans.
Killingly’s school board voted 5-4 Wednesday night in favor of going back to Redmen. Last summer, the board got rid of the name after a recommendation from members of the Nipmuc tribal nation, Native Americans indigenous to Northeast Connecticut.
The latest vote goes against last year’s successful student campaign to replace the name with “Redhawks.”
“I want to be the Redhawks and if not, then something else -- just not the Redmen,” said Jessica Long, a sophomore on Killingly’s tennis team.
She said she’s tired of adults making a big deal about something students have already moved on from. If asked, she said she won’t wear something that says “Redmen” on it.
“I have three sweatshirts that are from freshman year that I used to wear all the time, and I refuse to wear them now because I don’t want to be known as that,” Long said.
It has to do with getting attention for the wrong reasons.
For 20 years, writer Paul Lukas has covered sports team uniforms, logos and identities for a sports blog called Uni Watch. Part of that work includes following the controversy around Native American names and imagery.
“It’s the first time I’m aware of that a school district or community has retreated and moved away from a team name or mascot based on Native American iconography -- and then gone back to it,” Lukas said. “It really shows how charged this kind of issue can be in a community and how strong a community can feel about issues of identity.”
It’s an issue that’s dividing the town politically. It even swayed recent school board elections.
After Wednesday’s school board meeting, a post appeared on the Killingly Republican Town Committee Facebook page. “Promise made, promise kept,” the post reads. “Tonight by a 5-4 vote, the Republican controlled BOE reinstated the Redmen legacy.”
The majority of those five votes were cast by members who ran on the mascot issue in November's municipal elections. None of the Republicans who approved the change responded to Connecticut Public Radio’s request for comment.
Democrat Hoween Flexer voted no. She said the restoration of Redmen is a political decision that should have been about the kids -- students who instead wanted the Redhawks name.
“We had an opportunity to engage the students. We had an opportunity to engage the Native Americans,” Flexer said. “People reached out to help us, and we refused to accept their help.”
Up until the initial change last summer, Killingly High School athletics had gone by Redmen for 80 years. Members of that board said there would be a change if the Nipmucs recommended it.
A letter signed by the tribe’s council 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.”
After Wednesday’s vote, another local tribe weighed in. The Mashantucket Pequot tribal nation told Connecticut Public Radio that the old name “doesn’t honor or represent Native people and has no place in our school system.”
“We urge the Board to rethink their decision,” reads the statement from Mashantucket Pequot tribal leadership.
Flexer, who said she was blindsided by the decision to vote in the absence of a relevant action item on Wednesday night’s board agenda, hopes her town hasn’t set some sort of national precedent that politicizes the mascot debate.
“The fact that people ran [for a seat on the board] and made it a political issue is not fair,” Flexer said. “It’s strictly an education issue.”
She wants the state to intervene and ban offensive Native American mascots -- something Maine and Oregon have already done.
On the other side, a state representative in Idaho is trying to get his state to stop local school boards from having the ability to change mascot names.
Long, the Killingly tennis player, hopes the attention this debate has cast on her school leads to support for her and her fellow students.
“There’s still going to be more to it -- it’s not over yet,” Long said. “It’s not over yet.”