Indians. Braves. Chiefs. Redskins.
Native American names and mascots have always been a big part of our sports landscape. Currently, more than 900 high school, college or pro teams use American-Indian-related images on uniforms, merchandise, and in school publications. Proponents say the images convey courage and spirit, and their use honors the people they represent. Critics say the references are racist and insulting. Since 1969, over 600 teams have cast off their native connection, including Newtown High School.
Until 1996, our NHS teams were "The Indians", and the school's athletic and spirit graphics featured an Indian Chief in full profile as a mascot.
Then it was changed to "Nighthawks", and we had a new emblem - the menacing visage of a hawk's head - a predator high on the local food chain - inset into a capital letter "N".
But here's the thing - a nighthawk isn't actually a hawk at all. It isn't the majestic, dominant bird of prey that we see peering down at us from trees and telephone poles, soaring above Fairfield Hills and sending out its trademark high-pitched call to announce its presence. The true image of the nighthawk is very different, and it isn't the emblem that we see at the midfield line in Blue & Gold stadium and at the main entrance to the school and on countless uniforms and hats and shirts and jerseys and bags and in the car windows of countless Newtown students and parents.
In fact, a nighthawk is little more than a medium-sized, fairly harmless (except to moths and mosquitos) nocturnal bird with really short legs that has a hard time walking. It nests on the ground and feeds on flying insects. It doesn't hunt down mice and rats and unusually small children like any self-respecting real hawk would.
And here's the kicker - sometimes nighthawks are referred to as "goatsuckers" because of a legend that started circulating in the mid-1800's that nighthawks were stealthily drinking milk from sleeping female goats.
Dwell on that image for a moment. It's quite unsettling.
Oh, we may think we're being clever and accurate naming our announcer/filming booths high above the football field at Hawley and Blue & Gold Stadium "The Hawks Nest", but the sad truth about our mascot is that they don't even have the good sense to keep a nest up in the trees with all the intelligent birds. In fact, the female apparently just kind of gives up and lays her eggs directly onto bare ground and blindly hopes that the coyotes and badgers and fisher cats don't come along and eat up her in-progress offspring while she's out trying to find some really sweet tasting goat's milk.
Again - significantly unsettled by that image.
We want our athletes to be sleek and smooth, but it appears that the flight of the
common Nighthawk is, unfortunately, erratic and jerky.
I mean, think about it - did anybody do a background check on this bird? Or did they just sit around with an animal encyclopedia and say “So, what starts with an ‘N’ and isn’t overly controversial? Nutria? Nurse Shark? Norfolk Terrier? Oh hey, here’s one...”.
I can comprehend the universal appeal of alliteration, but is that really why they picked this completely unfit, irrelevant mascot?
About the only thing that connects nighthawks to Newtown is that the nighthawk has the longest migration routes of any North American bird. And as anybody who lives in town and works in lower Fairfield County or NYC knows, it’s pretty tough to get anywhere from here.
But I will say one positive thing about the nighthawk - when they're not hanging around the northeast, they spend a lot of time in South America. You have to give them style points for the whole "Flying Down to Rio" thing. Very cool.
I can understand the movement to change the name - people were merely trying to do the right thing. People who were against the change broke out all the usual arguments - that this was just another example of political correctness run amok, another death knell of American tradition. But for the people behind the change, this was the way the world was moving, and they felt that Newtown should be in front of the curve and not behind it.
But beyond the ultimate ridiculousness of the "Nighthawks" name itself, there are two real issues that make me question the change.
First, and most important, in 1996, news sources recorded that leaders of the local Native American community openly stated that they were okay with Newtown High School's mascot as a headress-wearing Native American (okay, an "Indian") chief.
And also, lots of other schools right around us had similar or the exact same nickname and have never made a change.
Conard High School, in West Hartford, was and is "the Chieftains" - their mascot
is the letter "C" crossed with a feather, a logo that replaced the standard side profile of a native chieftain. Conard changed their emblem in the Fall of 1997, right after Newtown High decided to name itself after a short-legged bird that lives on the ground and is rumored to suckle from the teat of a goat under the cover of night.
Guilford High School just ignored the hoopla altogether and said "nope - we're not changing". They stayed the Indians, as did John Jay High School just over the border from us in South Salem, NY. And the same goes for Manhasset High School on Long Island.
For those schools, "once an Indian, always an Indian", apparently.
But not here.
Frankly, I can live with "Hawks" for our Newtown teams. Most of the high school teams and youth sports organizations have adopted the abbreviated version anyway.
But I’m really curious as to what people think about the possibility of going back to
being the "Newtown Indians", with a revised emblem that doesn't evoke any of the traditional stereotypes.
If the school administration says it would cost too much money to change things over (especially the gym floor and the midfield logo on the Blue & Gold turf), let’s
get some people together to solve for that.
If some socially sensitive full-on Wonderbread parent stamps their feet and says that it's inappropriate, I'm not buying into that, regardless of the rationale. That's like a blonde trying to tell a brunette what it's like to be a ginger, when the only opinion that really matters is that of the redhead.
But if enough people with genetic connections to our Native American culture and
community say that they find it to be hurtful and that it paints a negative image of their people - then you have to respect that. After all, it comes from the source.
Sure, it would be cool to go retro, but we don't HAVE to be the Indians. We don’t even need to be the Hawks. We have options.
Fight on, you Goatsuckers! Fight on!