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Wisconsin Mascot-Name Law Seen as Modest Start

By Ian Quillen — June 03, 2010 3 min read
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A recently passed Wisconsin measure creating a pathway for those looking to challenge school mascots that may be racially offensive isn’t perfect, American Indian advocates say. But it’s a start.

The law, enacted last month after similar bills had failed during the previous decade, allows residents of a school district to challenge names they contend promote a negative racial stereotype, typically of American Indians.

After a challenge, the state schools superintendent would hold a hearing to decide whether the name does promote a stereotype. If so, the district would have a year to change the mascot, but could appeal for more time if it could prove an immediate change would cause serious financial burden.

“This is a compromise, of course,” said Barbara E. Munson, the chair of the state’s Indian Mascot and Logo Task Force, saying she would prefer all American Indian mascots be eliminated. “But it’s a good compromise. I like it because it does allow for dialogue.”

The law is the first state measure of its kind, but it follows a 2005 National Collegiate Athletic Association mandate that bars schools from using American Indian mascots from hosting NCAA championships.

The only complaint filed since the law was enacted May 21 has been against western Wisconsin’s Osseo-Fairchild district, according to Patrick Gasper, a spokesman for the state education department. Another district voluntarily dropped its “Redmen” moniker after the law’s passage. Mr. Gasper said other districts had taken similar voluntary steps before the law was enacted.

Ms. Munson’s group had identified 36 districts out of more than 400 statewide that use a name that could be subjected to a challenge, Mr. Gasper said.

Ms. Munson said there is middle ground. For example, she said, several schools have in the past have changed “Blackhawks” logos from an Indian chief in headdress to a depiction of a bird.

Opponents of the law say many mascots are used respectfully in tribute to the region’s American Indian heritage. State Rep. Bill Kramer, a Republican, pointed 30 miles southwest of Milwaukee to the Mukwonago High School Indians as an example.

“[It’s] a tribute to the numerous Indian burial sites in the area,” he said, adding that his worries about the challenge system included the possibility that “the person [challenging] who’s offended could be the only person who’s offended.”

A Democratic legislator, Rep. Amy Sue Vruwink, even had language added to the law to permit schools to keep a name if the namesake tribe had consented. And retiring Republican Rep. Donald Friske, whose district included the northern Wisconsin town of Tomahawk, said American Indians risk being further erased from cultural memory through the elimination of all Indian names.

“I think that the tribes, by contracting themselves and taking all the references out of our cultures outside the reservation … limit their opportunities to explain and define themselves and talk about their contributions to our society,” Mr. Friske said. “I wish they would’ve used that opportunity to go into our schools and to explain why that mascot is honorable.”

But the presence of Wisconsin’s 11 federally recognized tribes—the most of any state east of the Mississippi River—is exactly why the law was needed, said Ms. Munson.

Others question, though, whether names like “Flying Arrows” or “Hatchets” are even particular to American Indians. The law does allow some leeway: If a name is deemed ambiguous, the challenger must prove how it promotes a stereotype, but if it is clearly depicting Indians, the school using the name must prove how it doesn’t.

Mr. Friske said the standard for challenging a name is too opaque, and that while some supporters of the legislation were genuine, others were swayed by the prospect of political and monetary support from Wisconsin’s tribes.

However, Ms. Munson said research that shows negative social effects of race-based mascots is what helped turn the state culture in favor of the law. Stephanie Fryberg, of the University of Arizona in Tuscon, has been one of the leaders in the field, she said.

“When we started in 1997, we were dealing with anecdotal evidence and experiential evidence,” Ms. Munson said, referring to when her task force was created. “Now there’s a research base.”

McClatchy Tribune News Service contributed to this report.

A version of this article appeared in the June 09, 2010 edition of Education Week as Wisconsin Mascot-Name Law Seen as Modest Start

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