Our Views: Wisconsin should not go backward on Indian nicknames

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Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Just when pressure is mounting on Washington's NFL team to change its deplorable Redskins nickname, our state Legislature wants to take Wisconsin backward.

Critics of political correctness argue the language police have no business meddling in sentiment and tradition. They reason that teams use Indian names and logos because of Native American qualities such as bravery, strength and nobility.

Yet President Obama suggested that if he owned that pro football team, he would consider changing the nickname. The league commissioner stated that if even one person is offended, officials should look at the issue.

As syndicated columnist Charles Krauthammer argued Oct. 18, words evolve. While Martin Luther King used the term “Negro” 15 times in his “I have a dream” speech, today that term is considered patronizing and demeaning. In decent, polite company, you wouldn't say Congress has 44 Negroes, nor would you state it has two redskins.

Wisconsinites thought they settled the controversy over using Indian nicknames when then-Gov. Jim Doyle signed legislation in 2010. It gives the state Department of Public Instruction authority to force schools to drop race-based nicknames, logos and mascots if a complaint is filed and the agency finds the names or images discriminatory.

The DPI ordered Mukwonago to drop its Indian nickname and warbonnet logo, but the district is resisting and seeking help of state Rep. Steve Nass, R-La Grange. Nass has authored legislation to revert to local control. In a column in Saturday's Gazette, he also noted that federal law protects students from discrimination.

Nass' legislation has passed the Assembly, and the Senate plans to take it up next month. It would require a complainant to prove discrimination and submit signatures equal to 10 percent of the district's student population. That's too high a number.

As the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports, only a few people requested that Mukwonago change its nickname. Why would they step forward? Indian families have been subjected to threats and violence after asking school boards to change names or mascots.

Besides, if local control made sense in issues of racism and discrimination, some Southern cities still would have blacks drinking at separate fountains, riding in the backs of buses and banned from voting.

The nickname issue divides communities, as the Milton School District knows well. It dropped its Redmen name and logo in 1999, but the debate split residents and sparked a recall election targeting school board members who backed the change. Yet Milton's experience shows communities can and should move on. Milton is proud to be the Red Hawks, and the name offends no one.

Sen. Dale Schultz, R-Richland Center, proposes a compromise in which the DPI would review all mascots and nicknames. Any order for change would require the school board to work with the Great Lakes Inter-Tribal Council on an agreement.

That might be a reasonable alternative. What the state shouldn't do is backtrack.

As Barbara Munson of the Oneida told the Journal Sentinel: “When you get to the point where your educational professionals don't see the stereotyping as harmful, there is a problem.”

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