Wisconsin bill requires Indian logo investigations

Todd Richmond, Associated Press Writer
2/27/09

MADISON, Wis. – Wisconsin schools may have to drop their American Indian logos or face hundreds of dollars in fines under a bill a Democratic lawmaker has proposed.

Schools have been moving away from American Indian logos and nicknames for years. More than three dozen still use them, however, according to a fiscal estimate attached to the bill.

The bill calls for the state Department of Public Instruction to investigate complaints about race-based names, nicknames, logos or mascots. School boards would have a chance to argue the logos or mascots don’t discriminate or amount to harassment or stereotyping.

If the state superintendent finds the complaint has merit, he or she would order the school board to drop the offending moniker within a year or face $100 to $1,000 in fines each day it continues to use the logo.

“It’s 2009. It’s time we put this behind us. It’s the Native American’s heritage, first and foremost. If they’re not feeling honored, then it’s time to get rid of it,” said the bill’s author, Rep. Jim Soletski, D-Green Bay.

Like many other Midwestern states, Wisconsin has dozens of towns, counties and cities with names derived from Indian languages. The name “Wisconsin” is derived from the French version of the Miami Indian word for the Wisconsin River, according to the state Historical Society. That history has been reflected in school nicknames across the state.

Academia began moving away from the nicknames in the late 1980s to avoid offending American Indians. The University of Wisconsin La Crosse changed its nickname from the Indians to the Eagles in 1989.

Several states, including California, Oklahoma, Kentucky, New Jersey and Vermont have tried to introduce legislation banning racially offensive mascots since 1992, but nothing has passed, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Wisconsin lawmakers have also tried, but failed, to pass bills similar to Soletski’s in the past decade.

Former Wisconsin schools Superintendent John Benson sent a letter to school districts urging them to change American Indian logos to more ethnically sensitive ones in 1994. Current Superintendent Elizabeth Burmaster sent out a similar request in 2005, citing an American Psychological Association resolution that said use of such mascots and logos could have a negative impact on students, particularly American Indians.

Since 1991, 32 state school districts have dropped references to American Indians, according to the Wisconsin Indian Education Association’s “Indian” Mascot and Logo Task Force.

La Crosse Central High School, for example, changed its Indian-on-horseback logo to a knight in the mid-1990s but kept its Red Raiders nickname. The Tomah High School Indians became the Timberwolves in 2007, and the Wisconsin Rapids School Board voted 4-3 last year to shorten its Red Raiders nickname to Raiders and redesign its mascot.

But 38 districts with American Indian mascots, logos or nicknames haven’t changed them, according to the mascot task force.

The Mukwonago School District uses the Indians nickname and an American Indian in a headdress as a logo. Superintendent Paul Strobel said they reflect the area’s past and the state shouldn’t dictate to local leaders.

“It’s our identity. We take pride in the fact that’s supposed to be a name taken in a positive light,” Strobel said. “We recognize there is accountability and responsibility in using that name. We’ve done that.”

The Mosinee School District did away with its Indian mascot years ago but voted in 2005 to keep the nickname.

“The older generation has a harder time with this issue. They just have a hard time understanding how this could be perceived as no longer politically acceptable,” Superintendent Jerry Rosso said.

Task force chairwoman Barbara Munson, an Oneida Indian, said her children went to Mosinee High School. While social studies classes presumably teach diversity, student athletes are still exposed to racial stereotypes when they play schools with American Indian nicknames, she said.

“My culture, the Oneida culture, values peace. The Indian mascot in Mosinee is kind of tied to ideas of being fierce and warlike. ... It’s just one more layer of things kids have to figure out.”

Soletski said it isn’t up to individual districts.

“The common argument is we’re honoring American Indians,” he said. “If American Indians don’t want to be honored, it’s their choice.”

The bill’s prospects look good. Democrats control both houses of the Legislature and Assembly Speaker Mike Sheridan, D-Janesville, has signed on as co-sponsor. The bill would still need Gov. Jim Doyle’s signature to become law, but Doyle is a Democrat, too. He issued an opinion in 1992, when he was attorney general, saying an American Indian logo or mascot could constitute discrimination.

Doyle spokeswoman Carla Vigue declined to comment on the bill, but said if the logos and nicknames are offensive, the state should “make a change.”

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