Connecticut schools that still use Native American nicknames and mascots could take a financial hit if they continue to use those images without written consent from a state- or federally-recognized tribe in their region, under a provision tucked into a massive budget implementation bill that cleared the state Senate on Tuesday.
Municipalities face the prospect of losing their allotment of revenue from the Mashantucket Pequot/Mohegan Fund, an account that's funded with the state's 25% share of slot machine revenues generated at the two casinos owned and operated by the federally recognized Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan Tribes.
The provision was included in the budget bill by state Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, the co-chairman of the General Assembly's Appropriations Committee.
“Towns around this state have been told year after year by Connecticut’s Native American tribes that their nicknames and mascots are horribly offensive,” Osten said in a written statement. “If certain cities and towns won’t listen to their fellow citizens, then they can certainly do without the tribal money that they are showing such disrespect toward.”
Meeting in a special legislative session, the Democratic-controlled Senate on Tuesday passed the budget-related bill with the provision on a vote of 23-7. The bill now awaits action in the House of Representatives, which is scheduled to meet on Wednesday in special session.
It's estimated that about a dozen schools in Connecticut still use Native American names or images. Some communities have already changed the names of their athletic teams in light of the racial reckoning that has been taking place in the U.S. For example, the Manchester Indians became the Red Hawks in 2019 following a months-long campaign by students who said the mascot was a stereotype they could not support.
In Killingly, the school board voted in 2019 to change the name Redmen to the Red Hawks as well, at the behest of students, faculty and local tribal representatives. But the move was reversed months later after a slate of Republican candidates, who ran on the issue of restoring the name to honor a long-standing tradition, won a supermajority. The decision received national media attention.
“This is the first I’m hearing about this," said Killingly Town Council Chairman Jason Anderson, a Republican. Killingly was scheduled to receive more than $94,000 from the grant fund in the current fiscal year, which ends July 1.
Under section 63 of the 837-page budget bill, the funding would be withheld if schools, intramural or interscholastic athletic teams associated with the school don’t change “any name, symbol or image that depicts, refers to or is associated with a state or federally recognized Native American tribe or a Native American individual, custom or tradition, as a mascot, nickname, logo or team team” or don't receive permission to use it.
The section was amended on Tuesday to give municipalities until June 30, 2023, to make the change. That deadline would be extended for another year if the community informs the state Office of Policy and Management that it intends to make the change but needs more time.
Most of Connecticut's 169 cities and towns receive a grant from the Mashantucket Pequot/Mohegan Fund, with extra money earmarked for communities located near the tribes' Mohegan Sun and Foxwoods Resort Casinos. The amounts are based on a formula that involves a number of factors, including the value of untaxable property within the community. Payments are made three times a year and can total as much as $5 million or more for the larger cities.
During the state's last two-year budget, about $103 million in grants was distributed from the fund.
Republican legislators, the minority party in the General Assembly, said they were surprised to see the provision included in the massive bill, which they didn't receive until Tuesday morning. Sen. Craig Miner, R-Litchfield, whose district includes Regional School District #6, dubbed the “Warriors,” was angry Democrats did not tell him about the change. Miner is the top Senate Republican on the Appropriations Committee.
“Just because you're in the majority doesn't mean you should act this way,” Miner said.
Both the Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan tribes have said they believe it's appropriate to end the use of Native American imagery in team names and mascots. In a joint statement from the Mashantucket Pequots and the state-recognized Eastern Pequot Tribal Nation provided Tuesday, the two tribes said “wide-ranging appropriation of Native-American-related imagery, culture and names” promotes stereotypes, misrepresents Native American culture and creates “lasting harm for tribal nations and their citizens.”