MADISON, Wis. – Gov. Jim Doyle signed into law May 5 a bill that provides a transparent public process that school district residents can use to require school boards to review race-based nicknames, logos and mascots. The law, unique in the nation, is being popularly referred to as the “Indian Mascot Bill.”
“What we need to do as a society as a whole, not just as Indian educators, is look at the impact of human stereotypes on our kids and remove them,” said Barbara Munson, Oneida, chair of the Wisconsin Indian Education Association Mascot & Logo Task Force.
Thirty-eight schools continue to use a form of American Indian symbolism covered by the bill; 32 have modified or dropped such usage. Wisconsin has more than 400 school districts.
The state Assembly vote passed the bill 51-43 with the Senate vote 17-16.
During Senate floor amendment debates, Republican Rep. Glenn Grothman objected to a single individual requesting a mascot review. Grothman stated that many of his Native American constituents supported mascots and shouldn’t be told what to do by a white liberal extremist or one malcontent.
Bill co-sponsor Democrat Sen. Spencer Coggs responded. “If we use that logic, back in 1954, when Rosa Parks got on a bus and she decided it was not right for black people to sit at the back. … would it have been okay for another black person to say, ‘Hey I like sitting in the back of the bus. It’s okay with me – let’s cancel out what Rosa Parks is talking about?’”
Coggs emphasized the importance of setting up a process so peoples’ voices are heard.
The law leaves the final ruling for a symbol’s removal to the State Superintendent of Public Instruction and provides noncompliance penalties up to $1,000. Symbols granted permission by federally recognized tribes are not subject to review.
The signing was the culmination of a 16-year effort by educators, legislators and community members to pass a bill with more teeth than the current nondiscrimination laws have.
In 1992, Doyle, then state attorney general, issued an opinion for then State Superintendent Herbert Grover, which said logos, mascots and nicknames could constitute a violation of the discrimination provisions of Wisconsin public school operating laws on a case-by-case basis.
“Nondiscrimination is one of the basic ethics of public schools,” said Munson, who filed a complaint with the Mosinee School Board in 1994 alleging discriminatory effects of its Indian nickname and logo. Her complaint’s denial was upheld by the Wisconsin Court of Appeals in 1998.
Munson’s effort was one of several filed in the early 1990s that resulted in backlashes that threatened families and damaged careers.
The signing of the law is a milestone in the ongoing efforts of Native and non-Native educators and community leaders to bring young people together after racial tension and conflicts erupted when the 1983 Voigt Decision affirmed the Chippewa’s right to hunt, fish and gather on ceded traditional lands.
Another landmark bill, Act 31, emerged from this conflict. Act 31 mandates Wisconsin provide grade four to 12 curriculum on the treaty rights, culture, history and tribal sovereignty of the federally recognized tribes and bands in the state.
School boards must provide adequate instruction in these areas as well as materials on human relations with particular focus on minorities.
Teacher certification requires instruction in all of these areas.
Many exceptional efforts that meet the spirit of the act have arisen around the state. One in particular directly contributed to the passage of the “Indian Mascot Bill.”
In northwest Wisconsin, Prescott High School AP history and civics teacher Jeff Ryan has developed an exchange program with Lac du Flambeau students and has brought more than 200 students to the reservation for a four-day visit.
“Here at Prescott, since I’ve been here, we have been diligent and take the act’s mandate very seriously,” he said. “And it’s good for the kids; it’s not just a mandate.”
Indian mascots were one issue shared during the exchange. One group of students decided to research the issue on their own. Their interest took them to Madison to testify at the bill’s Assembly hearing.
These students’ journey is featured in the Engage video series on state, local and tribal government. The segment is called “Taking a Stand.” See the video at www.ecb.org/engage/takingAstand.htm.
Engage, a media project of the Wisconsin Educational Communications Board to fulfill Act 31 mandates, was made possible by more than 100 volunteers, including activists, politicians, tribal and state government officials, and the staff of Wisconsin Public Television.
“Jeff is what teaching is all about,” said Nick Hockings, Lac du Flambeau Band of Lake Superior Chippewa traditional elder and educator. “He understands the issues. He guides them. He doesn’t tell them what to do.”
Hockings said the influence of the non-Native students on the passing of the bill spoke to a cultural bias and political concerns on the part of legislators who paid little attention to Native American advocates over the years.
There’s a flip side, when you’re so involved for so many years, we all testified – tribal chairmen, Charlene Teters – and nothing was done.
“Adults are afraid. These kids are bold.”
J.P. Leary, Cherokee/Delaware, consultant to the state Department of Public Instruction said the violent reaction to the Voight Decision came from the invisibility and misrepresentation of Native Americans in educational settings.
The growing body of formal research on dysconcious racism, stereotypes and identity is underscoring what advocates have been saying for a long time, he said.
“The hallmarks of whether Act 31 is being addressed in a good way are accuracy and authenticity. Stereotypes are inconsistent with a sound curricular approach.”