Wider Scope

What's in a Mascot

a state bill forces schools to rethink race-based mascots

Claudia Lozano |

Clockwise from upper left: Osseo-Fairchild Chieftans, Elmwood Raiders, Rib Lake Redmen, Potosi Chieftans, and Shiocton Chiefs.

Carol Gunderson, member of the Oneida tribe, remembers when she attended high school at Seymour, whose mascot was the “Indians.”

“(The school) used this name, but kids still wouldn’t sit next to an Indian,” Carol said. “It was very confusing.”

The school, now called “Seymour Thunders,” is one of 30 in Wisconsin that has changed its race-based name. But according to the Wisconsin Indian Education Association Mascot and Logo Task Force, 36 schools with Indian nicknames and logos still remain.

Carol is a civil rights activist along with husband Harvey, a white American, and together they have become deeply involved in the fight to change the name of the Osseo-Fairchild Chieftains, who represent their school district. They may soon see that happen.

Elementary principal for Osseo-Fairchild, Steve Glocke, said their community is split on the issue. “I think if (the school) would ever change its name, it would have to be something done legislatively.”

On Feb. 25, the State Assembly approved Bill 35, which serves as an alternative complaint process – a springboard for the transformation of a school’s mascot, logo, or nickname. Currently the bill is pending at the senate, but, if passed, any school district resident could file a complaint to the state superintendent about a school logo, nickname, or mascot. The superintendent would then order the school board to stop using it, but only if it’s determined that it promotes discrimination, pupil harassment, or stereotyping.

Rep. Jim Soletski and Sen. Spencer Coggs introduced the bill, which has existed for about 15 years but never before was able to pass at the state level. The deadline for action on this bill is May 6, but Coggs said he is confident the bill will pass by the end of April.

“People say ‘What if it’s only one American Indian student that protests?’” Cogg said. “Well, what if Rosa Parks wouldn’t have complained about the bus? She represented a lot of people and this bill is the same idea.”

The senator added that he doesn’t think people mean any harm when they observe a mascot or logo with the use of an Indian face. “(Mascots) usually have a big head dress; usually it doesn’t connote any American Indian tribe. But many use the eagle feathers and that is considered sacred to American Indians,” Coggs said, referring to their use of feathers in religious rituals.

“We don’t think anything of (the feather) because we don’t have that religious construct,” Coggs said. “What if we saw a Jesus in the sidelines of a game? We would find that offensive – a mockery of Christian religion. That’s what American Indians are saying.”

Carol Gunderson took the analogy even further. “What if people would start to sprinkle holy water at a game? They would say they are making fun, a mockery. That’s what these schools are doing.”

Out of the 36 schools using Indian-based nicknames and logos, we contacted the four nearest to the Chippewa Valley.

    Greg Corning, superintendent of the Menomonie High School Indians, said they don’t have a mascot, per se, and they strictly follow the district’s Policy 382, which spells out the use of their logo. This policy states the Indian logo/name will be used “in all ways to preserve and foster the story of the Native American people who were here first, who lived in harmony with nature, and who continue to strive to preserve their cultural heritage … always keeping in mind the use of the logo/name shall portray positive ideas of a people who believe in the attributes of strength, honor, dignity, and pride.” In 1998 students and community members in the Menomonie school district voted to retain the logo and name.

Glocke said the Osseo-Fairchild Chieftains also follow a strict policy for the use of their mascot, which dictates when and how they use it. “Even though some are still offended by the use, our board members tried to do what they think is appropriate.”

Superintendent Russell Helland has been with the Baldwin-Woodville Blackhawks for the past seven years, and said the name “Blackhawks” has been endorsed by the community and they “use it proudly.”

Glocke expressed similar sentiments, saying that some people see the Chieftains as symbolizing pride, honor, and respect. “But there are other people that, for them, it symbolizes a kind of a discriminatory statement based on their American Indian culture,” he said.

Superintendent and high school principal for the Elmwood Raiders, Adam Zenner, said he’s been in the school for the last three years, and he’s never heard of a request to change the name. “I do know we used to have a full American Indian chief in full dress, but we changed the logo to the ‘E’ with the spear going through it in the mid 90s.”

According to research done by Dr. Stephanie Fryberg at Stanford University, American Indian students experience lower self-esteem from exposure to ‘Indian’ nicknames and logos, while Euro-American students exposed to these symbols experience a boost in their self-esteem. Also, American Indian students who say they approve the logos experience more psychological harm than students who oppose such symbols.

“It benefits the racial majority, but harms the targeted minority, which by definition is harmful discrimination based on race,” Harvey Gunderson said, adding the Osseo-Fairchild community is torn on the issue. “We have received anonymous threats in letters and phone calls. It’s tense because there are only three American Indian families that have spoken out. When you are in a community like this and you dare to speak out, there’s a target that goes on you.”

Opponents to changing school mascots are typically not concerned about the students’ adaptability but their own, according to Gunderson. Most schools have generations of alumni who consider their name to be indispensable tradition.

“Their tradition is to be Indian?” Carol said. “That’s how they seem to identify themselves, not realizing that they are not part of that name anyways.”

Glocke said Osseo-Fairchild tried to change the name about seven years ago, but that led to a political revolt. “There was a board recall and the name was reinstated,” Glocke said.

Superintendent Helland said Baldwin-Woodville uses the term of “hawks” more than “Blackhawks,” and he doesn’t see a need to change the name because the mascot instills a sense of school pride.

“If we changed it to Hawks, then will the animal activists come after us?” Helland said. “I think everyone is happy where things are right now. (The name) is something that is totally up to the community.”

In Osseo-Fairchild, Glocke said they have talked about changing the school’s name and the way it is used. “If we are forced to change it … it would resolve the issue,” he said. “It may put an end to this [matter] the community has gone through for the last 10 years. [Students] would like this to be over.”

Zenner said if the legislation were to pass, the Elmwood district would deal with it at that point. “I think that’s the identity of Elwood over the years,” Zenner said. “Change can be difficult, but if legislation were to pass and we are required to change we would make the appropriate changes and move on.”

Sen. Coggs said people should put themselves in the shoes of American Indians and make these very necessary changes. “They are expressing something that you don’t know anything about,” he said. “(These logos) hit them in personal and often religious ways.”

Carol Gunderson agreed, reasoning that mascots are typically animals and it is very demeaning to put a race of people in the same category. “What (the schools) are doing is very demeaning and they are doing it in a dehumanizing way. These schools don’t even know the culture. They don’t really care. That’s not their heritage. It is my God-given identity.”