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  • Writer's pictureJake Ziegler

Indians Out, Grizzlies In: Connecticut's Guilford High School Retires Its Native American Mascot

Updated: Jul 28, 2021

Sports teams and schools have been represented with mascots for countless generations. These mascots are far more than just names. Much of the sports community sees them as cherished traditions. But, within the last year, several sports teams and educational institutions have been retiring their Native American-themed mascots.


On the professional level, this includes the Cleveland Indians and Washington Redskins. While the Redskins had been around for about 83 years since 1937, the Chief Wahoo icon for the Indians had been around for about 105 years since 1915. There are also several other American professional sports teams who either currently have Native-themed mascots, or have dropped theirs as well.

Professional sports teams aren’t the only ones reconsidering their Native-themed mascots. Guilford High School (GHS) in Connecticut has moved on from its Indian mascot on June 29, 2020. The nine members of the school’s board of education, based on Guilford superintendent Paul Freeman’s recommendation, unanimously agreed to move on from their Indian moniker that has represented the school since 1949.


According to the communication released by Freeman, GHS made this decision because “The Indian mascot simplifies the complex history it is intended to celebrate while it frustrates our ability to speak honestly about current issues related to racism and justice. It is clear that the Indian mascot reinforces stereotypical images of Native Americans and that it teaches a negative lesson about identity, equity and respect more broadly.”


According to Freeman, the conversation about changing the school’s mascot has been circulating in the community throughout his 10 years with the Guilford School District. The school board had a structured way of addressing this issue with community-wide discussion, but it was interrupted in March of 2020 because of the pandemic. A few months later, the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police sparked even more attention to this issue.


“We received a flood of communications from students, parents and really importantly from recent graduates. It was over 200 communications that were asking us to not use the pandemic as an excuse for pausing this important conversation,” Freeman said. “We were absolutely influenced by the social narrative that was going on around us. We were late to the conversation.”

Paul Freeman - Guilford School's superintendent

As a result of the Black Lives Matter movement being revitalized after George Floyd's death, along with the hundreds of communications received, Freeman and the school’s board of education recommitted to continuing this conversation by shifting large public communications from the high school auditorium to Zoom settings. One occurred on June 22 where University of Connecticut assistant professor of human rights and education, Glenn Mitoma, and Chris Newell from the Akamai Educational Initiative, a group dedicated to providing Native-sourced resources on contemporary issues affecting Native Americans, joined the open forum (embedded below).


“That conversation with the board of education in public was a really thoughtful one about the importance of native mascotry and about the appropriateness of native mascotry,” Freeman said.

A week later on June 29, Freeman and the school’s board hosted another Zoom meeting where they invited community members to come out and to comment on the discussion. He said they heard many people who came out in favor of finally changing the mascot, while there were also some people who came out and thought that we shouldn't change the mascot.

Ultimately, Freeman’s communication that revealed the decision to move on from the Indian moniker drew a lot of attention from the community.

“Seventy years ago when the mascot was adopted, we recognized that nobody meant insult and no nobody meant harm when that decision was made. We also recognize that many people felt that that mascot was part of their community and part of their traditions in this community,” Freeman said. “But, we also recognize that the native community does take offense at using Native American mascots [...] that having a Native American mascot communicates things not just to native children, but to all children about how we see individuals and how we view identity.”

Freeman said that he had recognized for a very long time that there was something about a Native American mascot that contradicted the educational values and mission and vision that the Guilford School District stands for.

“For the last 10 or 20 years, we had actively been de-emphasizing that mascot. In fact, we stopped referring to it as a mascot and we began only referring to it as a name,” Freeman said. "We didn't have a costumed character who came to sporting events because everybody recognized that such a costume character would be dehumanizing and disrespectful. We only used feathers so we were intentionally minimizing the use of that caricature because we knew that it said something to our kids about the way that it was okay to dehumanize a group of people.”

Freeman said that he’s had interactions with GHS alumni who had uncomfortable experiences wearing the Indian apparel outside of the Guilford area.

“Many former students had put their high school spirit wear away and stopped wearing it at their college or in their new town because they didn't know that they were offending people, and they didn't want to be offensive,” Freeman said. “Now, they're saying to us that it shouldn't be a choice between wearing my school gear proudly or offending somebody. I should be able to wear it proudly and not be offensive to anyone.”


As for the Guilford community’s reaction, Richard Binkowski is the women’s ice hockey head coach for GHS. He said he understands why this decision was made.


“I think it’s important for these moves to happen at a local level so that kids can learn and people can understand this stuff,” Binkowski said. "There’s a lot of attention to race relations issues across the country and across the world right now and it’s bringing it to the forefront.”

Richard Binkowski - GHS women's ice hockey head coach

GHS baseball head coach Nick Merullo was recently welcomed to the Guilford community with this news, but it was no surprise for him.


“When I was a kid, there was a lot of talk about Guilford changing the name,” Merullo said.


Merullo says that if this transition away from the Indian moniker happened in a different year, it would be getting even more attention.


“I think with the past year that we had [COVID-19 cancelation], the team really missed out on a whole season,” Merullo said. “I don't want to say it's become a small problem, but I think to some extent, if we were just wearing green t-shirts with just numbers taped on the back, I think these guys would be happy to be out here playing.”

Nick Merullo - GHS baseball head coach

Senior baseball captain Mike McCullagh said that most people called them simply by their town name anyways.


“Nobody really said Guilford Indians at least within the town and our team,” McCullagh said. “Nobody says Indians that much, so I just feel like Guilford is a more common theme for us.”

Mike McCullagh - GHS baseball senior captain & pitcher

As for GHS alumni, Peter Limoncelli is a part of the Class of 1983. He played varsity tennis and soccer for the school, and his reaction to this news was two-fold.


“One [feeling] would be the history of playing as a Guilford Indian for four years, but the other is that this is a change that should be happening,” Limoncelli said. “It created a whole different perspective for me about how these names could affect these kinds of people.”


Despite his personal nostalgia, Limoncelli saw no good reason to keep the Indian moniker.


“Besides being selfish in wanting to keep the name because I grew up there, I don’t see a good reason to keep the name,” Limoncelli said.

Peter Limoncelli - GHS Class of 1983 alumni

Meanwhile, many schools and sports teams do see a good reason to maintain their Native-themed mascots. They would pose the counter argument that their Native-themed mascots came from positive intentions to both honor and pay tribute to Native American culture. As such, a petition has been created and signed by over 2,100 people to keep the Guilford Indian moniker alive. Its front page says:

Among the numerous comments on the change.org petition, one came from user Barbara Hammarland, who commented, “I can’t imagine Guilford High School without the Indian symbol. The Indians were here long before the settlers. Let’s stop throwing traditions out the window.”


Another came from user Amy Buffone, who commented, "This is a knee-jerk reaction to the current political climate. There is no reason to remove this. Stop pandering and start focusing on the pride that the school obviously has.”


Finally, user Stephanie Tashman said, “Changing names and ripping down statues doesn’t change history. You can try to erase the past, but it’s still the past and we should all be proud of who we are and where we came from. That includes the Guilford Indians. I graduated a Guilford Indian and I am proud of it.”


Michael Monaco is also part of the GHS Class of 1983, and he thought it was “an inevitable Guilford thing to do.”


“It seemed foolish and predictable at the same time,” Monaco said. “I thought it was done in a reasonably respectable manner and with a sense of sensibility to the people who were in the past history of the town.”


In response to this counter argument and the petition, Freeman says that understanding Native Americans’ perspective is what matters most.


“It's not about the intent, it's about the impact of a decision,” Freeman said. “When you're hearing from the people that we are naming who are saying to us, ‘please, we would prefer that you not do that,’ it really doesn't matter if it’s 2,000 signatures.”


In fact, Guilford's school website contains a document that lists eight different excerpts from individuals and organizations requesting schools to remove Native-themed mascots.


Mitoma, the assistant professor of human rights and education at the University of Connecticut, who participated in the aforementioned Zoom meeting on June 22, also voiced that a key distinction to this conversation is intention versus impact.

“It's hard to read into somebody's heart what they mean what they intend,” Mitoma said. “So, when we do research, we can do a little bit on sentiment and try to analyze it, but that's much trickier than trying to document impact. The impact we have documented is uniformly negative.”

Glenn Mitoma - UConn assistant professor of human rights and education

Richard King, the chair and professor of humanities, history and social sciences at Columbia Chicago College, also said that it doesn't matter what your intentions are, but rather the effects or impacts of the image.

“If the effects are diminishing the humanity of people in that group or not granting them equal access to the public sphere, or creating hostility in an unconscious way, that's a much more important measure of the mascots,” King said.

Other than the racist and offensive nature of Native-themed mascots, social movements may have contributed to this recent trend too. The resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement in the aftermath of George Floyd's death may have influenced sports franchises and schools to remove their Native-themed monikers.


Mitoma sees that connection.


“I think there's been a surge in the social reckoning with our shared history of white supremacy and this is tied in with the Black Lives Matter movement, but encompasses the much broader reconsideration of the narrative of U.S. history that positions it,” said Mitoma.


Richard King agrees. He said he thinks the George Floyd protests pushed the broader public and corporations to engage with the underlying racism and eurocentrism that was no longer tenable to have.


“I think without Black Lives Matter, without riots in the street and the conversations and pressure that came from those, I'm not sure the D.C. football team [formerly Washington Redskins] would have changed their name,” King said.

Richard King - chair & professor of humanities, history and social sciences at Columbia Chicago College

Francis Vigil has been a tribal education specialist at the National Indian Education Association (NIEA) for about four months. He says there's been a consistent push for more of an education and understanding of why these things historically are bad as time has moved forward.

“I think these social justice movements are a huge catalyst in a lot of grassroots efforts to revitalize these conversations,” Vigil said.


Vigil sees a clear correlation between cultural appropriation and the symbolization of a Native-themed mascot.

“When you start to look at a lot of the appropriation that's happening, it's a misrepresentation of who we are, what we do, and the cultural components that go along with that. All you're doing is taking our culture and twisting it into whatever you want it to look like and feel like,” Vigil said. “Indians is a mischaracterization of us because it's still the perpetuation of a misnomer because we're not Indian, we’re Native American.”

Francis Vigil - tribal education specialist for National Indian Education Association

Mitoma says that he sees a very clear link between having a native-themed mascot and an overall atmosphere of racial hostility in school communities today.

“The images that we see depicted through native mascots rely on stereotyped versions, so they're oftentimes these one-image kinds of a native person, and it would be the head-dress and a very kind of Hollywood-esk version of an Indian,” Mitoma said. “You get the message that if there's just only one version of a group we are associated with, we think that's the only way to be and what the world expects us to be.”

Mitoma acknowledges the negative consequences of promoting these stereotypes in a school environment.

“That type of stereotype reinforcement can limit young people in particular view of themselves in their culture as being dynamic, alive and able to be a vibrant part of both contemporary society and the future,” Mitoma said.

King thinks many perceptions of Native American culture today primarily relate to whites’ understanding.

“These are stereotypes that mystify and keep us from recognizing their humanity, and they also encourage even worse kinds of behaviors and attitudes," King said.

King describes this through the psychological term called unconscious priming, defined as a phenomenon whereby exposure to one stimulus influences a response to a subsequent stimulus, without conscious guidance or intention.


“This unconscious priming that happens repetitively in a community is really powerful,” King said. “Images have a life of their own and once they're let free in the world, they go off and do stuff. Oftentimes, stuff that we’re unconscious of and don't intend to carry out. But, like all the images, it does work in our brains and interacts with it and those interactions create impacts.”


These impacts pertain to more than just the inherently offensive and racist nature of Native-themed mascots on schools and sports teams. For instance, there was a study conducted by Stephanie Fryberg and three other psychologists called “Of Warrior Chiefs and Indian Princesses: The Psychological Consequences of American Indian Mascots.” The abstract states that four studies of American Indian mascots in high schools and a college were examined about the consequences of American Indian mascots. The results indicated that exposure to Chief Wahoo, Chief Illinwek and Pocahontas (among others) reported depressed self-esteem and community worth, along with fewer achievement-related possible selves. The study’s conclusion suggests that American Indian mascots are harmful because they remind American Indians of the limited ways others see them.


Additionally, the American Psychiatric Association (APA) released an academic piece in August of 2010 called “Legislative efforts to eliminate native-themed mascots, nicknames, and logos: Slow but steady progress post-APA resolution.” The article states that, according to scholars from a variety of disciplines outside of psychology, sports-related representations of American Indians (Redskins, Braves, Indians, Fighting Sioux) are problematic because they: “misuse sacred cultural symbols and spiritual practices, perpetuate racist stereotypes of American Indians, deny American Indians control over societal definitions of themselves; and create a racially hostile environment for all students.”


Similarly, in 2005 the APA found that using American Indian mascots, symbols, images, and personalities by schools, universities, athletics teams, and organizations is problematic. This is because this practice “undermines the educational experiences of members of all communities, establishes an unwelcome and hostile learning environment for American Indian students, has a negative impact on the self-esteem of American Indian children, undermines the ability of American Indian Nations to portray accurate and respectful images of their culture; and may represent a violation of the civil rights of American Indian people.”


Vigil says that he and NIEA collectively don’t feel honored by having their culture represented on sports mascots.


“There are a lot of different ways to honor people, but I wouldn't want my caricature, my likeness, or my image to be utilized as a mascot without my consent or even my input,” Vigil said. “If you're going to honor us, give us our land back and allow us to have some degree of sovereignty control over some of these things."

NIEA was formed in 1969 by Native educators who were anxious to find solutions to improve the education system for Native children.

Likewise, Mitoma said he would challenge the narrative of honoring and paying tribute to Native Americans through sports mascots.


“If you look back at the history of when and how these were created and how they've been practiced through the years by most of these schools or sports clubs, you see very little evidence of a respectful honoring treatment,” Mitoma said. “Dressing up using red warpaint on their face and having these really stereotypical images like the Cleveland mascot [Chief Wahoo] are clearly meant to be demeaning in some fashion.”


Speaking of history, Native Americans have been on the wrong end of it for hundreds of years. Vigil says events like the Indian Removal Act, Relocation Act and various boarding school policies all point to a lack of honoring and paying tribute to Native American culture.


“When you combine all of those positions, barriers and policy pieces, you really start to look at a group of people that have never really been honored,” Vigil said. “The last thing a native person wants is to say, ‘OK, it’ll make it all better if you honor us by putting us on a football team and make us a mascot.’”


Also, King says that Native Americans are trapped in history because Americans place them in a historical context that doesn’t accurately represent Native Americans today.


“Most Americans don't know the Native American history and most Americans don't have to know Native American history from their perspective because they have the privilege of not having to do so,” King said.

Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation Statement

Vigil has had first-hand experiences that speak to a lack of public awareness of Native Americans’ contemporary existence.


“Even to this day, I go to different places and I say I'm a Native American, and people kind of look at me like I'm a relic from the past,” Vigil said. “I've even been to Native American schools where the Native American kids who are living on a reservation don't identify themselves as Native Americans because of a lot of these assimilated processes that have gone on.”


Mitoma thinks the way Native Americans are represented in popular culture movies, along with sports mascots, further promote the fictitious perception that Native Americans are artifacts.


“They're always depictions of some 17th or 18th century version of native people that conveys to the audience that they're gone, that native people were here once and they don't exist now,” Mitoma said.


King says political cartoons illustrate how today’s society fails to correctly identify indigenous people.


“I think it's clearly the case that Native American mascots have the tendency to dehumanize Native Americans to make them unreal, to make them imaginary, to make it impossible to recognize American Indians on the streets,” King said.


In effort to correct these misperceptions about Native Americans and their culture, removing related monikers appears to be one step in the right direction. According to Freeman, another could be enhancing his school’s education system on the topic of racial equity.


“We plan on diversifying our teacher workforce, providing more instructional training for teachers, and looking for places in the curricula to provide more education on these issues,” Freeman said.


Vigil suggests a few other educational ways we can honor Native Americans.


“Maybe providing a better history curriculum or providing a culturally responsive education, where students might be able to look at their local area where there are indigenous people would be good ideas,” Vigil said.

Limoncelli, a member of the GHS Class of 1983, says that people who resist this change are selfish in the sense that “if a change doesn’t benefit me, there’s no purpose in educating myself or fighting for a cause.”

Taken May 2, 2021. This sign can be seen driving on Route 80 toward North Branford, Connecticut.

“There are a lot of ignorant people who don’t spend the time to educate themselves and don’t want change,” Limoncelli said. “We need to grow as human beings and evolve.”


King would likely agree with Limoncelli’s sentiment.


“For the most part, I think people that find mascots to be problematic welcome the effort to think critically about mascots and to open up dialogues about them,” King said. “I think people who don't want to think critically about mascots and are comfortable with them as they are, express antipathy.”


King teaches courses on Indian Americans at Columbia College Chicago. He runs an exercise during the first class each semester by first asking the students to write down the first 10 things that come to mind when he says “American Indian.” Then, he has the students draw a picture of what they think an American Indian looks like. Finally, he has the students write two sentences about how often they’ve interacted with American Indians. King says the results primarily repeat themselves.

“It’s almost always Hollywood stereotypes and mystical things, spirit animals, and all sorts of distortions that don't reflect or don't show knowledge of American Indians in their history,” King said. “If you can get through life up to the age of 20, and in some people's cases their entire lives, using these stereotypes to make sense of both history and and these current people, I think that goes a long way to explaining why these mascots have persisted.”


King is the author of a 2001 Choice Outstanding Academic Title book called Team Spirits: The Native American Mascots Controversy. It contains a series of case studies about various universities that were using Native-themed mascots. According to King, the motive behind this book came about when he and one of his colleagues, Charles Springwood, were attending the University of Illinois for their PhDs in anthropology. During that time, King said there was a lot of conversation circulating around this issue.

“Part of what we wanted to do was set a variety of these case studies next to each other and see what kinds of themes emerged,” King said. “We really wanted to have a scholarly dialogue and push or contribute to move the public discussion of the symbols forward.”

Roughly 20 years later, King says he thinks the book served its intended purpose.

“I think the book did what we wanted it to do in the sense that it has informed public conversation and it's encouraged other people to do research,” King said.

Amazon.com has eight reviews that yield a 3.9 star rating for this book.

King also shared a positive experience with a reader of his book.

“I had an American Indian graduate student a few years ago who's like, ‘My parents owned a bookstore on the reservation, and I read your book over and over again, it's what helped and inspired me to go to grad school,’” King said. “That was an awesome thing to hear.”

Moving forward, Guilford High School announced that its new mascot would be the Grizzlies back in early December of 2020. The selection process began on July 1, 2020 when the school asked students, families, staff and friends of Guilford to send name suggestions. By August, they received more than 300 submissions. A mascot search committee was formed with representation from all of these stakeholders to narrow down the list.


In late November, GHS students in grades 5-12 participated in a survey to rank their top five selections, which was further narrowed based on a list of 14 semifinalists created by the committee. Grizzlies won with 6,061 votes, Eagles came in second with 5,311 votes, Seahawks in third with 5,116 votes, Hawks placed in fourth with 4,916 votes and Gryphons/Griffins came in last with 4,816 votes.


Freeman said he and the school wanted this selection and voting process to be something fun that the kids had ownership over.


“The first thing that was done after the students decided on Grizzlies was that every kid got a t-shirt that said Guilford Grizzlies on it,” Freeman said. “It also had a giant stamp on it that said, ‘I voted.’”

Freeman is hopeful for the best outcomes of this new moniker.


"We hope that for the next 70 years that this remains something that isn't divisive,” Freeman said. “Not everybody is going to think Grizzly is the best mascot in the world, but we hope that there isn't somebody out there who refuses to wear a Grizzlies hoodie because they can't get on board with the fact that one is there.”


Freeman talked about how the school design and comfort level around the school community are going to change now being known as the Grizzlies.


“We're putting pictures of a bear on our spirit wear and we're going to purchase a character of a bear that could attend athletic events,” Freeman said. “We're not afraid of accidentally offending anybody with a grizzly bear.”


McCullagh, one of the pitchers for GHS baseball, is a fan of the new Grizzlies name since it flows well verbally.


“The alliteration of Guilford Grizzlies rolls off the tongue nicely,” McCullagh said.

Binkowski, the GHS women’s ice hockey head coach, likes the symbol that the new mascot represents in the sports realm.

“The Grizzlies are tough and that’s what you want to portray: a fierce competitor in sports,” Binkowski said.


Limoncelli took immediate action when GHS announced the new name, despite the fact that he would’ve preferred a different moniker.


“I went out and bought a Grizzlies shirt when they announced the new name,” Limoncelli said. “I was hoping it would simply be ‘Guilford’ because I think that would be a classy way to represent the town.”

Sport-Tek Youth PosiCharge Competitor Tee - teamlocker.squadlocker.com

Meanwhile, Monaco, another GHS alumni member, would have preferred a more meaningful moniker to represent Guilford as a town.


“It just seems kind of random to choose the Grizzlies as the school’s new mascot,” Monaco said. “I would’ve liked to see them use something to tie the town together in a meaningful way.”


Whatever opinion coaches, players, students, parents, alumni or staff may have about replacing Indians with Grizzlies as Guilford School’s new moniker, Freeman says he thinks the school handled the situation appropriately.


I think anybody in Guilford can continue to say that they think that this was unnecessary or that we made a mistake,” Freeman said. “But, I don't think anybody could argue that we didn't try really hard to hear everybody and allow everybody to have their voice heard before ultimately making the decision.”


Freeman understands that changing the school’s mascot is just the beginning of addressing racial issues within GHS.


“This decision is not the end of a conversation, it was part of a conversation, and it's literally a symbolic part of that conversation,” Freeman said. “But, we're not saying, ‘OK, we're done, we finished with the mascot, we fixed the race issues or we dealt with it.’ It's just one step in the conversation.”


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