Wis. Law Lets Residents Challenge Race-Based Mascots

Judy Keen, USA Today, October 6, 2010

The homecoming pep rally Friday at Kewaunee High School will have extra drama this year: Everyone in town will learn whether they’ll be rooting for the River Bandits or the Storm to beat the Valders Vikings in the big football game.

The selection of a new nickname is the culmination of a sometimes painful few months in this town of 2,745. Under a new state law meant to eliminate race-based nicknames, logos and mascots, a complaint prompted the Kewaunee School District to drop the “Indians” name that had been in use here since 1936.

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Law first of its kind

A state law that took effect in May allows school district residents to lodge complaints against race-based names. The Department of Public Instruction holds a hearing before the state superintendent decides whether to bar the usage. Districts can argue that a name isn’t discriminatory if they have a tribe’s approval.

In June, retired Kewaunee teacher Marsha Beggs Brown filed a complaint. The Kewaunee School Board intended to fight it, says President Brian Vogeltanz, but changed its mind on the eve of the hearing and decided to voluntarily drop the name. The district has a year to remove Indians signs from school premises.

“Respect for all people–that was my motivation,” says Beggs Brown. “There’s just no refuting that these names harm children.” Some people here support her decision, she says, but “I’ve also gotten a couple of anonymous letters and anonymous phone calls, and there are people who don’t speak to me.”

{snip} Wisconsin’s law is the first of its kind.

Department of Public Instruction spokesman Patrick Gaspar says it has received three complaints. Osseo-Fairchild schools were ordered to drop their Chieftains nickname. A complaint against the Mukwonago Chieftains is pending. There’s been no complaint in Auburndale, but it is forming a committee to look into changing its Apache nickname.

Last week Kewaunee defeated the Mishicot Indians. Mishicot has permission from Michigan’s Hannahville Potawatomi to use the name because the town is named for a chief from that tribe.

Barbara Munson, chair of a Wisconsin Indian Education Association task force on mascots and logos, says about 30 school districts use Indian names and about 30 dropped them voluntarily. The issue, she says, “is a failure of mainstream American culture to deal with stereotyping.”

Mixed reaction

Jesse Steinfeldt, an Indiana University psychology professor who has studied the effects of the nicknames and mascots, says they create “a racially hostile education environment that . . . can affect the self-esteem of Native American kids.”

Councilman Brandon Stevens of the Oneida Nation, the tribe closest to Kewaunee, wishes the Legislature had banned all Indian nicknames. But, he says, “as long as there’s debate, there’s an avenue for education.”

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