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Letters Sent to Wisconsin High Schools Plead for Name-Change

High School Won't Drop 'Blackhawks' Name
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A school district in Jefferson County, Wisconsin, refuses to change the name of its high school’s mascot after calls from the Wisconsin Indian Education Association to do so.

The WIEA sent 31 letters to school districts in the state asking them to drop Native American mascots and nicknames. The Fort Atkinson Blackhawks are under scrutiny by the organization.

The letters were sent more than a month after Governor Scott Walker signed a bill making it harder to force schools with tribal nicknames to change them. It no longer takes a complaint to start the review process. Now, the petitioner has to prove that the mascot or nickname is racist.

“We have received the letter from the WIEA?requesting Fort Atkinson to discontinue the use of the Blackhawk mascot out of respect for tribal nations,” District Administrator Jeff Zaspel told The Daily Union. “At this time, we do not believe our use of the Blackhawk mascot is racist or disrespectful, and do not plan to discontinue our tradition of honoring Chief Blackhawk in this manner.”

“Honoring” is the defense other school districts and professional sports teams have used to describe why they should not change their name. Zaspel said that the name Blackhawks is an ode to Chief Blackhawk, who he said was “a prominent figure in our community’s history.”

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“For our community, the use of the Blackhawk mascot is a focus on the bravery, courage, leadership and dignity displayed by Chief Black Hawk himself,” Zaspel said.

In 1966, Fort Atkinson High School changed its name from the “Cardinals” to the “Blackhawks” to differentiate itself from the teams in its conference that had the same name. According to the Daily Union, the Fort Atkinson Student Council recommended the change to honor Chief Black Sparrow Hawk, the Sauk warrior whose tribe’s tragic massacre during the Blackhawk War of 1832 permeates Fort Atkinson’s heritage.

“Our district incorporates Native American history and study at many points through the K-12 curriculum, including a focused interdisciplinary unit of study at the middle school level and an elective offering at the high school level called ‘History of Wisconsin,’” Zaspel sold the newspaper. “We have a strong partnership with the Hoard Historical Museum, which has exhibits specific to the Native Americans, including Chief Blackhawk, and their history.”

But it is unclear whether local tribes are on board with Zaspel’s reasoning for keeping the name. However, the painted logo with Chief Blackhawk’s likeness was removed from the floor of Fort Atkinson’s gymnasium in 1994 after John Benson, the former Superintendent of schools, encouraged it.

“We are confident our Fort Atkinson students understand why it is important to honor Native Americans,” Zaspel said.

Apparently, WIEA does not agree.