An Examination of the Conard Chieftain

FEATURE

By: Ally Bernstein-Naples

After decades of controversy, the Washington Redskins announced that they would be discontinuing both the name and the logo then associated with their team on July 13th 2020. This announcement reflects a broader tide of change regarding indigenous mascots and team names sparked in part by heightened racial tensions following the murder of George Floyd. The summer of 2020 was a period of racial reckoning that saw the abolition of many Native mascots throughout New England. All of these changes prompted me to examine Conard’s own experience with an Indigenous mascot, specifically, the movement to change the mascot and abolish the Chieftain caricature in 2015 and the conflict that ensued. To be clear, I will not be taking a stance on the mascot controversy, but rather will present and analyze the evidence in a journalistic capacity in order to draw conclusions about the impacts of having an Indigenous mascot on both Indigenous and non-Indigenous youth as well as the lessons and conclusions we can extrapolate from the 2015 contention.

Since its founding in 1957 Conard High School has been represented by the Chieftain mascot with a fan-section called “The Tribe”. In 2015, the Board of Education recommended the discontinuation of the caricature associated with the mascot as well as the name of the fan-section. For half a century, Conard principals had dressed up in Native garb at pep rallies and assemblies, and football coaches gifted Conard’s most talented linebackers with severed scalps (pictured to the right is Conard’s Principal Henry Weyland from 1957-1974).

Both of these practices lost popularity in the late 20th century, but of course remain a part of Conard’s complex history. Despite the board of education’s decision to discontinue the use of the Chieftain caricature, it still holds a presence within our halls. In 2016, a Conard parent designed a shirt depicting a Chieftain caricature wearing a headdress adorned with the image of a hand holding up a middle finger (pictured below). Many students still annually design a t-shirt with the discontinued caricature and much of the student body continues to refer to the Conard fan section, renamed the “Red C”, as “The Tribe”.

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Principal Henry Weyland (From 1957-1974)

In response to the first resurgence of the Chieftain logo on student-made shirts, then Chairman of the Board of Education Mark Overmyer-Velazquez labeled it “another reminder… that racist, offensive, exclusionary and discriminatory practices exist in our society.” Assistant superintendent Andrew Morrow also rebuked the founding of a new student led club meant to immortalize “The Tribe”, claiming that some students “have chosen to selfishly seek attention by deliberately continuing to promote an unofficial student group with a name and imagery that is inappropriate and racially insensitive,".

However, despite this clear reproach from administrators, students have continued to perpetuate the use of the discontinued labels and imagery.  Upon visiting the Conard parking lot, it is not uncommon to see cars decorated with phrases such as, “she belongs to the tribe”. Interestingly, this year's seniors are not old enough to have attended the school when the retired fan section name and caricature were still in use , begging the question, can we ever dichotomize the “Chieftain” name from the racist caricature and fan section name? Dr. Tracey Wilson, West Hartford’s town historian and  former social studies teacher at Conard, a staunch advocate of replacing the mascot, does not think so. A common argument for keeping the mascot claims that the Chieftain can be traced back to other non-American Indian cultures but rather simply exemplifies and encourages leadership. The first part of the claim is in fact true; the use of the word Chieftain can in fact be traced back to leaders of Irish Clans. During our interview, I presented Dr. Wilson with this argument and first asked her if she believes the Chieftain mascot could ever be separated from Native associations; her response was an emphatic “no”. I further asked her to respond to the leadership aspect of the argument by drawing from her experiences as a coach. Dr. Wilson phrased her response simply: “You don’t need a mascot to build leadership”. She went on to provide the example of her alma mater, Trinity College. Trinity’s mascot, a bantam rooster, is objectively silly, but Dr. Wilson vehemently believes that the school’s coaches were still perfectly able to build leadership among their players; “they built leadership because that’s what coaches do, not because of some mascot”. Moreover, advocates for changing the mascot, such as Dr. Wilson, argue that Indigenous mascots promote stereotypes that are detrimental to the self-esteem of Native youth. This assertion is in fact overwhelmingly supported by empirical research. Four studies of a cumulative 448 American Indian students all conducted by Stephanie Fryberg, the University Diversity and Social Transformation Professor of Psychology at the University of Michigan, found that students presented with a generic Chief logo as well as students shown an image of a white person dressed as the University of Illinois ‘Chief’ mascot displayed significantly depressed self-esteem and perceived fewer career paths as attainable in comparison with the control groups (for more information on Fryberg’s methodology, click here). Fryberg’s findings fit well with existing research and have led many researchers to conclude that “Native American mascots yield negative psychological effects (e.g., depressed self-esteem, community worth, and future achievement-related goals, and increased negative feelings of stress, distress, depression, dysphoria, and hostility) for Native American students” (L.R. Davis-Delano Et Al). Research also overwhelmingly indicates that Native mascots perpetuate negative stereotypes and perceptions of Native people among non-native youth (for more information on this, click here). With this data, we can now return to examining the controversy that occurred in West Hartford regarding the Chieftain mascot. 

The mascot debate in West Hartford was sparked by a soccer game between rival institution Hall High School, in which both Conard and Hall students screamed racial and ethnic epithets in reference to American Indians across the field at each other. The student body presidents of both Hall and Conard met to discuss solutions to the problem, and the idea of abolishing the Indigenous mascots was introduced. I asked Dr. Wilson to characterize the debate that followed , “It was not a civil conversation” she told me, “it was really hard on the students who supported the change. They were bullied. They were taunted. And the teachers were afraid to take a stand,  it was not clear that the administration had your back. There really was a fear that there would be retaliation.” The fear was not limited to Conard faculty and students; after the caricature was discontinued, Frank Waln, a Lakota hip hop artist was invited to perform at Conard and talk about some of the struggles he and other Native Americans face within the United States. Waln told The Hartford Courant that "When they contacted us to come here, I was reluctant, I almost didn't do it," Waln added, “I was afraid to come in here”. I asked Dr. Wilson why she thinks the debate deteriorated to the point where an American Indian person would feel unsafe setting foot in our school. Dr. Wilson attributed much of it to errors on behalf of the administration. Wilson explains that an order from the superintendent prohibited principals and other administrators from taking a stand on the issue and emphasized that this would be a student-led process. The administration “left students, teachers, and alumni to fight it out. In that way, it really was an abnegation of responsibility,” Dr. Wilson told me. I asked Dr. Wilson to explain how, in her opinion, the controversy could have been better handled by the administration. She used Northwest Catholic, another West Hartford high school, as an example. Around the same time that Conard was undergoing our own mascot controversy, Northwest Catholic was in the process of removing their mascot, “the Indian”. Their administration made the unilateral decision to discontinue the mascot and began a process in which they educated the students and teachers as to why they made that determination. Students were then allowed to vote on a new mascot. From Dr. Wilson’s perspective, this would have been the ideal way to handle the situation; “there could have been a process of change that was well thought out and supported that would not have divided the faculty and the students and could have been a much more educational rather than divisive process”. Wilson’s argument lends itself to an important realization; tyranny of the majority has been a prevalent phenomenon throughout American history. While the majority of students supported keeping the mascot and caricature, despite conclusive evidence that it is harmful to Native communities, the Indigenous communities that are harmed the most by such caricatures were vastly underrepresented in the decision-making process. As Dr. Wilson puts it, “if everything was a majority vote, people in the minority may never get rights [in the United States]. The judicial system is there to protect the minority, those who are left out from that 51% of the vote and that could have and should have been the administration [who took that role]”. I would add, that most successful democracies are not referendum states; in the United States, the people do not vote on every issue; the officials we elect do. The school board is elected, and there is no reason this precedent should not apply. Wilson’s argument that administrative intervention would have made the process less divisive is supported by two recent changes made by the Board of Education with relatively little controversy. In the past few years, West Hartford Public Schools changed its dress code to be more relaxed and inclusive, and changed October 11th from being labeled as Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples’ Day on the school calendar. Both changes could have, without a doubt, spiraled into divisive and polarizing debate, however, swift and unilateral action from the school board precluded any deterioration. After all, if teenagers could be trusted to provide themselves with a secure and productive educational environment, we would not need schools.

Regardless of individual perspectives on the Chieftain name and mascot, it is without a doubt true that no person of any race or ethnic background should be scared to step foot in our school, no student should be bullied for their opinions, and no teacher should fear administrative retaliation for expressing their own viewpoints. In the coming years we will be faced with many defining deciscions: to what extent and how should LGBTQ sex education be incorporated in our health courses, how do we adjust our history curriculum to be both comprehensive and inclusive, to name a few. It is apparent that polarizing debates in which students and teachers are pitted against each other is not an effective process for handling controversy. If we can take one lesson from the bitter mascot controversy, it is that it is absolutely essential that when faced with these difficult determinations our administrators and board of education members step up to progress the school, beyond what is popular, and in the name of what is right for the community.