A Follow Up: An Examination of the Conard Chieftain

By: Alexandra Bernstein-Naples

“At this hour, my friends, democracy has prevailed” celebrated newly inaugurated President Joseph R. Biden, the morning of January, 20th, 2020. The term a “win for democracy” has been parroted across the country perhaps since the nation’s inception. It is however, not always apparent as to what qualifies as a win for democracy. Particularly at local levels, the degree to which ideal democratic processes should be employed is debated. In my previous article, I analyzed the process undertaken in 2015 in order to eliminate the racist imagery associated with the Chieftain mascot and school name. I interviewed Dr. Tracey Wilson, former Conard teacher and West Hartford Town Historian. Dr. Wilson argued that the choice to obviate the imagery while retaining the name/mascot was not in fact a win for democracy but an exemplification of tyranny of the majority. In this case, Dr. Wilson found that implementing the view of a simple majority was not in fact a decision that upholds the values of democracy. It is however, the position of others in the Conard Community, that this process was the epitome of functioning democracy.

 

In order to gain a better perception of this view, I interviewed two members of the Conard Community, both of whom fought to retain the Chieftain name as well as another who fought to change the mascot. Before I proceed with my findings, I will clarify the stipulations of my analysis. Most notably, I am stipulating that the American Indian imagery previously associated with the Chieftain mascot is both racist and harmful to American Indian youth. In my previous article I presented a multitude of research that supports this conclusion, for more information, click here. With this conclusion, I will first analyze the process of change that took place in 2015 through the perspectives of Brian Wilson, student leader of the movement to retain the mascot, Rachel Yousman, student leader of the movement to eliminate the mascot, and Tim Decker, science teacher at Conard High School and a proponent of the compromise to retain the mascot while eliminating the imagery. I will then employ their perspectives in order to gauge the broader implications of the 2015 controversy, and the necessary next steps to be taken in order to make the Conard Community more inclusive and equitable. 

The first question I posed to all three interviewees asked them what galvanized them to become involved in the movement to retain the mascot. For Decker, it was an effort to preserve the history and tradition associated with the Chieftain name. When I asked him why the name mattered, he responded “I am proud to be a Chieftain. The great teachers, great classes, and great community that make Conard such an amazing school are connected to the mindset of being a Chieftain.” For Decker, it is the values of leadership and respect associated with the Chieftain name as well as the decades of local history that make it worth preserving. Brian Wilson worked alongside Decker, but for him, the importance of retaining the mascot was not only about protecting history, but about protecting the will of the people. In his capacity as Student Council Copresident, Wilson believes that he “had to represent the majority of how students felt, and at the time the overwhelming majority wanted to keep the name”. For clarification, I asked Wilson if he believes the name should be obviated if the majority of students support doing so. He responded in the affirmative. For Wilson, the movement was about amplifying and implementing the views of students and faculty. Yousman on the other hand, was galvanized to support the change, because she perceived the mascot as inconsistent with the school’s perpetuated values.

 

When the administration sent out an email, rebuking the use of hate speech and offensive symbols, Yousman was struck by their hypocrisy and overall inability to acknowledge the racism of our own mascot. Furthermore, Yousman, even as an athlete, did not feel the connection to the Chieftain mascot/name described by Decker. From her perspective, “it was just kind of happenstance that it was our mascot, and so we wore it.” Upon further self-education, Yousman concluded that “using Indigenous imagery as a prop isn't strength, it's exploitation.” Interestingly, both Decker and Wilson joined Yousman in condemning the use of such imagery. Decker recalled, “The imagery is racist. Many of us didn’t realize it was racist until the process began. That I think represents the value of the process. We as a community learned so much.” As an author of the 2015 Compromise, the natural follow-up question for Decker, of course, is one I had previously posed to Dr. Wilson, can we dichotomize this racist imagery from the Chieftain name? When I asked Wilson and Yousman this same question, the discrepancies in opinion emerged. For Decker, it is not a question of whether we can separate the name from Native culture, but whether we should. “When we talk about eliminating the association of the Chieftain name with Native culture, we get into territory of what you would call cultural appropriation”, Decker believes it is essential that we acknowledge the history of our mascot and our community. His rule of thumb for maintaining the Chieftain name: “Use it respectfully and have the necessary education behind it”. Yousman, is adamant that there is no way to respectfully use the Chieftain name, “as the word itself is a French word given by colonizers to Indigenous leaders, its colonialist history renders it an aspect of institutionalized racism.” Yousman’s claims are of course, historically accurate, however, many proponents of preserving the name emphasize a different historical fact.

 

As presented in a 2015 letter, proposing a compromise preserving the name but eliminating the imagery, “Chieftain is truly a diverse term that spans the globe. There are Chieftains of Polynesia, Chieftains of Africa, Chieftains of Scotland, and of course Chieftains of The Americas”. This is in fact also true, however Yousman’s point stands; Chieftain, while not unique to indigenous communities, is a term Western Europeans gave to leaders of the Nations they colonized. Despite this, Wilson does support a separation of the imagery from the name, while still emphasizing the importance of education. When I asked him about the students who continue to use this imagery and refer to the “Red C’ as “the Tribe”, he offered a word of warning, “the decision to preserve the name is fragile. Students need to be wary of that fact; it is not something to be taken for granted to be called Chieftain. It was a lot of work for a mutually agreed upon outcome that could easily be jeopardized by behaviors such as printing shirts with the old imagery or using the incorrect term for our fan-section.”

 

In reference to these students, Wilson clarified; “I don't blame them for not knowing this is racist, more education on what happened in 2015, and on Native history in our community as a whole is absolutely necessary.” Education. That is the consistency between all three aforementioned perspectives. Yousman, Decker, and Wilson all emphasize the need for greater education regarding Native culture and history. All three also referenced the opportunity to build relationships with local Tribal Nations posed by the development of various educational processes. Interestingly, a commitment to further education and relationship building with Native communities has already been made. In 2015, the school board affirmed their devotion to incorporating native culture and history into multiple facets of school life. From the perspective of all three of my interviewees, there is much more work to be done. For Yousman, the threshold is explicit, “unless it's comprehensive, critical, created by Indigenous people for use in public schools, and mandatory for every student, then I wouldn't say our current Indigenous education is sufficient.” Decker agrees that a class dedicated to Indigenous history and culture would be ideal, but he also emphasizes the importance of incorporating Indigenous history into other courses. In his AP Environmental Science class, Decker makes a point of using the Iroquois Constitution in order to teach about sustainability, while acknowledging the progress and precedent established by Indigenous communities in this field. In addition to the expansion of Indigenous history courses, Wilson emphasized the importance of developing a relationship with local Native communities. In 2015, Wilson met with a group of Mohegan leaders, who expressed the importance of doing just this. And education does in fact work.

 

Conclusive research does in fact demonstrate that such education efforts increase strength, resilience, and positive identity in Native students, and compassion and empathy among nonative students. So while there is disagreement as to the status of the Chieftain name, or the efficacy of the process of change, there is a clear solution. It is, without a doubt absolutely essential, that as a community, we commit to further implementing indigenous education efforts.