Re-indigenizing Connecticut: Moving Away from Teepees and Buffalo

Uncas, an accomplished forester and warrior, once served as sachem chief of the Mohegan Tribe in the 1600s, but it wasn’t until 1992 that he became more visible in the mainstream media culture while appearing in The Last of the Mohicans, a popular drama epic that had been showcased on the silver screen in movie theaters all across America.

Portrayed by Canada’s Eric Schweig, an Indigenous actor, the stoic hero died onscreen as he plummeted from atop a cliff after being defeated in hand-to-hand combat by Magua, a Huron chief and the film’s main antagonist. Although Magua was a fictional character, the life of Uncas actually came from the annals of history.

The Academy Award-winning film is an adaptation of the famous 1826 novel by James Fenimore Cooper, but isn’t the only depiction of Native Americans in Connecticut.

“When we have a book that persists and movies that come out of it like The Last of the Mohicans, it only reinforces a 19th-century idea,” said Dr. Jason Mancini, executive director of Connecticut Humanities. “Native people have historically just been part of this process of erasure out of our history books and public consciousness.”

Like entertainment culture, sports have also adopted the same-old tropes: Warriors. Chiefs. Chieftains. Red Raiders. Redmen.

Mascots carry meaning as well and Connecticut is actively cultivating a new culture of respect, trying to change its ways by ousting offensive and oftentimes racist appropriations of Indigenous communities.

Gov. Ned Lamont inserted a provision into this year’s 2021-22 budget bill, denying public school systems financial assistance unless they change the names of Native-themed or -inspired mascots by June 30, 2023. That funding comes from the Mashantucket Mohegan-Pequot Fund Grant, an annual gift distributed to 169 municipalities throughout the state from revenues at Foxwoods Resort Casino and Mohegan Sun.

“I think it’s really important that the elimination of these mascots not just be another chance to make Native people invisible. The removal of racist stereotypes has to be replaced with anti-racist depictions and representations. We have to begin to really do the work of including Native voices, and build a curriculum that showcases Native peoples and cultures past, present and future as a vital part of our world.”

Dr. Glenn Mitoma

With North Haven recently retiring its mascot, there are only a handful of school districts whose mascots remain and are now in jeopardy of losing their grant funding: Canton, Conard, Derby, Killingly, Montville, Nonnewaug, Torrington, Wamogo, Wilcox Tech, Wilton and Windsor.

The state has a rich history, home to fertile ground for plenty of Indigenous peoples. The Eastern Pequot, Golden Hill Paugussett and Schaghticoke tribes are state-recognized while the Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan Nations are federally-recognized.

Long ago, these Nations once flourished in the Northeast — before President Andrew Jackson enacted the Indian Removal Act of 1830. Nearly 50,000 eastern Indigenous peoples were forcibly relocated from their homelands — heading westward to eventually construct modern-day reservations, opening up millions of acres east of the Mississippi River for white settlers in the process.

Native peoples were “pretty thoroughly erased from the landscape,” particularly east of the Mississippi River, according to Dr. Kim TallBear, an associate professor for the faculty of Native Studies at the University of Alberta.

“You do have some tribes out there, but very few, and they’re quite small, and they’re not visible,” Tallbear told The News Station.

Connecticut public schools to change their  their mascots to native themed by 2022
Dr. Kim TallBear is an associate professor of Native Studies at the University of Alberta and an internationally celebrated academic who often weighs in on hot-button Indigenous issues. Credit: The University of Alberta.

Today there are 574 federally-recognized tribes scattered across the continental United States. 

It’s difficult to determine the size of modern-day Indigenous populations, too — even in Connecticut, a state with a population of more than 3.5 million.

Lori Potter, the public affairs director for the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation, who became an enrolled member in 1996, estimates there are more than 1,000 citizens within their Nation alone. And the numbers keep dwindling because those who claim Indigenous descent must undergo a process for enrolled citizenship, consisting of certain requirements that differ by Nation in order to be officially counted.

Through forced relocations in the Northeast, mascots started to emerge through depopulation — replacing authentic faces and voices in the process.

After the Revolutionary War, colonists tried to distance themselves from their former British rulers to create their own national canon — one built around Indigenous representations. Mascots were the next manifestation, one deemed necessary to “form an American identity,” TallBear suggests.

Today, Dr. Mancini says “there’s a modern world that Native people live in,” but they are still seen only as “an abstraction” — outdated caricatures that actively deny certain historical realities.

Even Uncas, who fought during the Pequot War, is still constructed through the guise of cinema.

“They don’t know it, but they’re reading from a 400-year-old script,” TallBear said. “It’s these kinds of ideas about Native people that are thoroughly threaded through our films, through fiction, through pop representations, through everything.”

For Devon A. Mihesuah, the Cora Lee Beers Price Teaching Professor in International Cultural Understanding at the University of Kansas, Indigenous peoples like herself are perceived as living mascots.

Connecticut public schools to change their  their mascots to native themed by 2022
Devon Mihesuah is the Cora Lee Beers Price Teaching Professor in International Cultural Understanding at the University of Kansas and a nationally-recognized expert on food sovereignty efforts in Indian Country. Credit: Annual Conference on Native American Nutrition.

As an enrolled citizen of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, she believes that privilege plays an important role in non-Natives taking ownership of appropriated mascots and monikers.

“I think the mascots in this imagery all fit into that,” Mihesuah said. “I just think it’s a case of feeling like you’re privileged.”

TallBear says that sense of entitlement and privilege extends to non-whites as well for those who are “complicit in erasing Indigenous claims.”

“It’s not only white people who are deeply attached to mascots, many Americans are deeply attached to them,” she added. “And there’s a complex set of racial politics in there that almost nobody is comfortable dealing with head-on.” 

Despite the prevalence and persistence of appropriated portrayals dominating mainstream media depictions of Indigeneity, Dr. Glenn Mitoma, an assistant professor of Human Rights and Education and director of Dodd Human Rights Impact at UConn, says there are “vibrant ongoing communities, around us, with us, to this very day.”

But they’re only seen in a particular sort of way. 

Mitoma essentially believes “the only opportunity they have to see themselves depicted in the broader culture is as a stereotype.” And there are “deeper problems” with Native representation and agency in the utter elimination of mascots, which “does not solve [the problem] in and of itself.”

Connecticut public schools to change their  their mascots to native themed by 2022
Dr. Glenn Mitoma, director of Dodd Human Rights Impact at UConn, is a staunch advocate for advancing critical conversations about Indigenous histories through higher education and academia. Credit: University of Connecticut.

“I think it’s really important that the elimination of these mascots not just be another chance to make Native people invisible. The removal of racist stereotypes has to be replaced with anti-racist depictions and representations,” Mitoma said. “We have to begin to really do the work of including Native voices, and build a curriculum that showcases Native peoples and cultures past, present and future as a vital part of our world.”

More than a mascot: reconciling a culture of racism, appropriation

When Mancini started working as the executive director at the Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center in 1995, he began creating a database toward the end of his tenure — one filled with sports mascots depicting Native themes within a landscape that had been utterly erased by their presence.

The database compiled mascots from school systems, finding more than 200 mascots fitting that description within a 180-mile radius from the museum — or a two- to three-hour drive.

“What we realized in doing this across southern New England is that people are very attached to their mascots,” Mancini revealed. “Oddly enough, it’s part of their own identity in sort of a disambiguated way.”

Historians and educators alike were convinced that the museum’s database formed a foundational “groundwork” for future research to better inform partner organizations like the Upstander Project and Dodd Human Rights Impact, in an effort to expand public discussions that confront an unsettling past: a well-documented history of appropriating Native peoples.

Part of the problem rests in the reality that Indigenous people are merely seen as “just an abstraction” among the vast majority of predominantly white, non-Native communities scattered across Connecticut. Mancini suggests a possible solution, one aimed at embracing “a little bit of discomfort” to reconcile offensive, racist appropriations of Indigenous identities through stereotypical caricatures in sports.

“I would simply ask communities that have mascots representing them to start thinking more concretely about the cultural landscape in which they live,” Mancini said. “They’re surrounded by Indigenous-placed names; how do they even begin to understand what that means and why those places matter?”

Instead of resorting to Indigenous images, Mancini pauses to consider what these communities can celebrate and honor from their own history, if public school districts ever decide on changing their beloved mascots because of the Mashantucket Pequot-Mohegan Fund issue. 

Despite his departure from the museum, Mancini maintains strong ties with the Nation and continues to support them in their struggle for statewide tolerance and respect. 

Mitoma, the associate professor of Human Rights and Education and director of Dodd Human Rights Impact, has collaborated with Connecticut Humanities to promote conversations through the university’s Democracy and Dialogues Initiative, in the hopes of “building a deeper understanding of inclusive history.” 

Mancini and Mitoma, alongside others, started pushing for a “real structural change” through policy at the state level in Hartford about a year and half ago.

But long before state lawmakers ever approved the provision within the budget, youth advocates were already tackling this issue within their own schools — grappling with well-rooted issues of racism through mascots.

Manchester High School is a prime example of such youth activism at work. The school enacted a graduation requirement, mandating their students enroll in a human rights course, one that UConn assisted in implementing. Years ago, some students “recognized the hypocrisy of a school that purports to do human rights as a banner program having a Native mascot,” Mitoma says, which led to a campaign to retire and replace their longstanding [since 1949] mascot, the Indians.

“Native people have always been here, they will always be here. It’s about recognizing the rich histories beyond a Pequot War or massacre and beyond casinos, that these communities are vibrant and thriving, in spite of all the challenges of settler colonial impact.”

Dr. Jason Mancini

Killingly’s school district underwent a “tumultuous first retirement, then reinstatement” of the “Redmen” mascot, causing an uproar that forced Native youth advocates off the sidelines and to the forefront, which led to more petitions and public demonstrations.

“Out of that disappointment came a recognition that more statewide organization was necessary,” Mitoma admitted.

Adam Soulor is an enrolled citizen of the Mohegan Tribe, and was named as one of Aspen Institute’s Center for Native American Youth 2019 Champions for Change. He helped draft “Call for Change: Derogatory and Racial Mascots and Logos,” an official CNAY statement in 2020.

“The Non-Native rationale of utilizing racial slurs as mascots and logos is unacceptable. It is disrespectful and disheartening,” the statement reads. “The racial logos and mascots have created social stigmas that detrimentally impact the health and wellbeing of Native American youth. These logos erect intergenerational traumas rooted in the forced assimilation of the population.”

The national nonprofit believes all educational institutions and sports teams should “establish policy that prohibits derogatory mascots, logos and cultural appropriation” while encouraging those same entities to “educate their communities on the true history and resiliency of the Native American population.”

It’s easier said than done though.

Before schools were subject to possibly losing grant monies from the Mashantucket Pequot-Mohegan Fund, an “outright ban” on Native mascots had been considered, but eventually tabled by state lawmakers.

Out of that compromise, Mitoma and other advocates advised the crafting of proposed bills after consulting unions, the Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents and Connecticut Association of Boards of Education, in the hopes of building political pressure at the state capitol alongside the Nations.

Potter, the public affairs director for the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation, says they oppose the use of any “Native American-related nicknames, mascots and imagery” except when school districts obtain the written consent of any federal- or state-recognized Nation. 

Written consent grants permission for school systems to utilize specific tribal names or generic terms that are often associated with Indigenous communities. No school system in the entire state has ever received written consent from the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation’s council leadership.

Tribal consultation hasn’t occurred either. A handful of Nation citizens have reached out to their own tribal officers internally “from time to time to ask for our support in banning Native mascots,” Potter shared — but not the superintendents or other school officials.

Although schools haven’t consulted the Nation itself on these matters, the new statutory mandate respects the rights of schools to protect their mascots. 

“We are in support of the new law, which doesn’t force anyone to do anything. It simply ties Pequot-Mohegan funds to the absence of Native mascots and branding for schools,” Potter told The News Station. “It’s therefore entirely up to each municipality how to respond to that law and decide whether preserving Native mascots without tribal consent is worth risking the loss of considerable funding each year from both Connecticut tribes.”

And yet the law isn’t stopping the Nation from engaging in new conversations with superintendents, school boards and other educational leaders within their predominantly non-Native communities to create intellectually cultural dialogues.

“If school districts wish to request our guidance on whether or not a mascot or logo choice is appropriate, we welcome such requests,” Potter added.

Although the prohibition of Native mascots across the state never passed, removing and replacing outdated mascots is only the beginning. 

Offering educational services are essential in combating the physical and psychological erasure of Native peoples in the Northeast. Educators succeeded in their efforts to bring about the creation of a curricular mandate for Native and Indigenous Studies for K-8th grade — an overlooked aspect of this year’s already-approved budget.

“The details are always where the rubber hits the road, but essentially, over the coming year, they’ll put together a taskforce to begin to map out how this curriculum will be designed and implemented,” Mitoma said.

With adverse psychological consequences particularly plaguing Native youth, through the deliberate dismissal of their voices from the decision-making process, the first step in a long path toward reconciling intergenerational trauma becomes clear to Mancini — something he had only dreamt about accomplishing while working at the Pequot Museum.

It’s time to start “transforming and re-indigenizing the education curriculum in Connecticut and beyond,” Mancini recognized.

Connecticut public schools to change their  their mascots to native themed by 2022
Formerly the Mohican Hotel, the Mohican Apartments still stand tall in New London, Conn. in 2021. Photo via Wiki Commons.

A new beginning: re-indigenizing the narrative

What does re-indigenizing Connecticut look like, one might ask? 

For Mancini, it’s all about “actively working to incorporate Indigenous narratives into the story of Connecticut.” 

“Native people have always been here, they will always be here,” Mancini said. “It’s about recognizing the rich histories beyond a Pequot War or massacre and beyond casinos, that these communities are vibrant and thriving, in spite of all the challenges of settler colonial impact.”

A new educational program called TEACH Connecticut is being created in collaboration with the state’s Department of Education. It’s a digital curriculum, aimed at better representing Native communities, incorporating the direct consultation of tribal leaders. But it’s only a start — one that the tribes are admittedly “very interested in and supportive of,” Mancini says. 

“We’re thinking more and more concretely in terms of how we best bring this content to the school districts across Connecticut,” he added.

Equally important, however, is crafting the institutional infrastructure and pathways necessary to support innovative approaches to new educational programming.

“Native people have historically just been part of this process of erasure out of our history books and public consciousness.”

Dr. Jason Mancini

“Then we’re not living in the past, and with these past ideas,” Mancini said. “This will be an important part of the transformation away from mascots, and quite frankly, many other outdated ideas of Native peoples, moving away from teepees and buffalo.”

Connecticut Humanities is frequently asked to curate exhibits on Native history, and they’re reviewing their own protocols to better imbue Indigenous perspectives throughout the entire process to such an extent that if someone proposes a project “there needs to be a conversation with the tribes first.”

“As we move forward, we will be moving both to directly fund tribal organizations, so they can tell their own story, but we will be requiring applicants who want to tell a Native story to have representatives from the Connecticut tribes present at the table from the beginning,” Mancini elaborated.

It’s all about recognition — acknowledging and honoring federal- and state-recognized sovereign Nations that reside within the geographical boundaries and borders of Connecticut. And by recognizing them, Mancini seeks to empower them, allowing Nations to “tell their own story” while supporting the development of “tribal knowledge economy” as a form of long overdue reparations.

“It’s valuable. I’ve been around for a long time, working with Native communities and, for the most part, tribal members are asked to give free presentations in school. It’s simply not fair,” Mancini said. “And so we want to support those types of initiatives that make sure that Native people are being compensated fairly for their knowledge.”

Gabe is a freelance journalist located in the Northeast. He's a master's candidate at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland, College Park. His full bio is here.

Gabe is a freelance journalist located in the Northeast. He's a master's candidate at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland, College Park. His full bio is here.

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