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Legislation could require schools to abandon Indian mascots

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Kayla Bunge
February 25, 2010
— Big Foot school officials believe the district’s use of the Chiefs nickname would survive even if a bill to regulate school use of Indian names and mascots becomes law.

Students and alumni are loyal to the Chiefs nickname and understand the historical significance of their school’s namesake, school officials said.


A bill before the Assembly could require Wisconsin schools, such as Big Foot, to abandon their Indian mascots and team names if they are found to promote discrimination.


“Our name, our logo … they are all done to honor Chief Big Foot and to honor his historical importance to this area,” District Administrator Dorothy Kaufmann said. “I don’t think any of it is done in a negative way.”


The bill would allow residents to complain to the state schools superintendent if their school district uses a race-based team name, nickname, mascot or logo.


The district would have to stop using the depictions within a year or face fines if the depictions are found to promote discrimination, student harassment or stereotyping.


Supporters of the bill say it is needed to curb discrimination. Opponents believe the mascots and names honor tribes and historical figures. They say long-held names boost hometown pride.


There were 36 Wisconsin schools with Indian names, nicknames, logos or mascots as of October 2009, according to the Wisconsin Indian Education Association.


Honoring history

Big Foot High School has stood behind the Chiefs name for more than 50 years. School officials believe the name honors Chief Big Foot, leader of the Potawatomi tribe, who lived along the banks of Geneva Lake until European settlers came to the area.


“(Our name) is historical,” said school board President Sue Pruessing. “We’re honoring the heritage that’s there.”


School officials say the image of the chief is not the official logo of the high school.


The school since 1999 has used a red and black banner and flame logo for academic purposes and an interlocking “B” and “F” logo for athletic and extracurricular teams and groups.


A statue of Chief Big Foot still stands outside the school. An image of Chief Big Foot can be found on the athletics page of the school Web site, but the depiction of the chief seldom is used elsewhere, they said.


Fort Atkinson High School also uses an Indian nickname and logo. Their teams are called the Blackhawks or Blackhawk Indians.


Fort Atkinson School District Superintendent James Fitzpatrick said he is confident his district’s intent to remain as the Blackhawks is as honorable now it was in 1966, when the school board changed the name from the Cardinals.


It was a deliberate attempt to preserve the rich history of the area, he said.


“Chief Black Hawk, who roamed these parts from 1767 to 1837, established travel communities along the Rock River right here in Wisconsin near Fort Atkinson,” Fitzpatrick said. “There is a lot of history embedded here.


“I believe the intent behind the law is to do away with mascots that demean and dishonor any group. Our intent, back in 1966, was to preserve the heritage of our area, our region, and to honor Chief Black Hawk of the Sauk Indians.”


Fitzpatrick said he has received no complaints about the matter.


Milton High School once rallied behind its Redmen nickname and mascot but in 1999 adopted the Red Hawks name and logo. The change there was controversial.


Staying power

This is not the first time Big Foot High School has had to contemplate the use of its decades-old name and logo.


Former state Superintendent Elizabeth Burmaster in 2005 sent letters to all school districts in the state asking them to reconsider their use of Indian names and symbols.


Social studies teacher Marsha Ries in 2006 presented a letter to the school board protesting the use of the image of Chief Big Foot as a school logo and the use of Chiefs as a school nickname. She argued the depictions go against history lessons that try to teach respect for Native Americans and their culture.


School officials are concerned about the impact the pending legislation could have on the school, but they also think the school would stand a good chance of retaining its nickname because of the historical context surrounding it.


“Our founding fathers … clearly felt that naming this building and this district after the chief … was done to honor him and continue to honor him throughout time,” Kaufmann said.


The state Assembly signaled preliminary support for the bill in a series of votes Tuesday. But Republicans, including Rep. Steve Nass, R-La Grange, blocked the likely final passage of the bill and pushed off a final vote until today.


“I think that is a decision best made by local school districts in conjunction with (district residents),” Nass said. “It’s not that school districts are unsympathetic to this cause. … Schools are changing their names. We don’t need to wipe them all out.”


The bill could face difficulty in the Senate, which like the Assembly is controlled by Democrats. Senate Majority Leader Russ Decker, D-Weston, said he was "not really focused" on it and noted the legislative session is winding down.


Gazette reporter Pedro Oliveira Jr. contributed to this story.

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