Education Group Fights To Rid Wisconsin Schools Of Native American Stereotypes

CREDIT: AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin

The Wisconsin Indian Education Association, which has for decades fought the use of Native American-based mascots in the state’s school districts, sent a letter this week asking the school districts that still use such mascots to change them, the Associated Press reported.

According to the Association, 31 Wisconsin schools still use names like Apaches, Indians, and Redmen. 34 schools have dropped similar names since the early 1990s, including the Winter school district, which willingly dropped its use of “Warriors” in the spring of 2013 after Native American groups challenged it. While names like Apaches and Indians may seem benign, the WIEA and other Native American groups have opposed all uses of Native American imagery in sports under the idea that Native Americans shouldn’t be stereotyped as mascots at all (they support their claims with research showing that these mascots can have negative social and psychological effects on Native Americans).

Changing Native American mascots in Wisconsin used to be fairly easy under a Wisconsin state law that required a state review of any mascot as soon as one complaint was filed against it. Under that law, the burden of proof that a name or mascot was not offensive or problematic fell on the school district that used it.

In December, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) signed a new law making it harder to change these mascots. The new law requires those who dislike the names to file petitions with support from the equivalent of 10 percent of the size of the school’s student body, and the burden of proof now falls on those who complain. Walker cited First Amendment free speech concerns in signing the law, though the American Civil Liberties Union called those claims “bogus appropriation of the First Amendment.”

“If it were up to me personally, I would seek viable alternatives that were not offensive to Native Americans,” Walker said at the time. He then signed a bill into law that made changing those names harder.

Activists argue that efforts to keep Native American-based names and mascots, whether through legislation or any other method, are for naught, as these name changes are ultimately inevitable. In 1970, there were more than 3,000 high schools, colleges, and professional teams using Native American mascots or logos. In the four decades since, more than two-thirds of those names have changed — there are now fewer than 1,000 in use, though none of the professional teams have chosen new names.

The Washington Redskins have faced the brunt of the criticism at the professional level. Native Americans have asked the team to change its name for decades, filed lawsuits against the Redskins’ trademark, and waged public education campaigns against it. This week, Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA) and Rep. Tom Cole (R-OK) sent a letter to the team and the NFL asking it to change its name. The franchise responded by telling members of Congress to focus on larger problems, an answer consistent with its overall argument that most Native Americans support the name and that the campaign against it is a new fight that isn’t worth having.

But as the Wisconsin Indian Education Association and other groups fighting these names around the country show, the requests to change names like “Redskins” aren’t new or unique: these fights have been going on for years, and in many instances, they have been successful.