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WUWM's Emily Files reports on education in southeastern Wisconsin.

Wisconsin School Board Members Reject Proposal To Ban Native American Mascots

Emily Files
Mukwonago is one of about 30 Wisconsin school districts that have Native American mascots or nicknames.

An effort to ban Native American mascots, logos, and nicknames in Wisconsin public schools was quashed on Wednesday, at least for now. A resolution to rid schools of the mascots was rejected by a delegation of about 300 school board members from across the state.

This latest push against Native American mascots started with Wausau School Board President Tricia Zunker, who is now also running for Congress. Zunker is Ho-Chunk, and she objects to the about 30 Wisconsin school districts still using Native American mascot and nicknames.

“This is essentially interscholastic discrimination,” Zunker said. “Mascots, logos, nicknames — they do not stay confined in the school district. Other school districts are exposed to them. Our students in the Wausau School District are exposed to them. That’s why we undertook this resolution.”

"This is essentially interscholastic discrimination. Mascots, logos, nicknames — they do not stay confined within the school district." - Tricia Zunker, Wausau School Board

The Wausau School Board passed a resolution in support of requiring districts to retire Native American mascots. The resolution made it to the statewide group that represents school districts — the Wisconsin Association of School Boards, also known as WASB.

Each year, WASB members vote on resolutions that set the group’s legislative agenda. If members approve a resolution, WASB will advocate for the policy change in the state Legislature.

On Wednesday, school board members from across the state gathered to vote on policy priorities. The mascots resolution was one of the most controversial.

Erika Conner of the Mukwonago School Board sounded emotional as she spoke against the idea. Mukwonago is home of the "Indians," and uses a logo of a Native American man in a feather headdress.

"I don't know that it's a good use of our time to debate the mascot/logo here, and instead focus on local control." - Erika Conner, Mukwonago School Board

“I cannot be in favor of this delegate requiring school districts to do anything,” Conner said. “It’s the very thing the state does to us all the time, that we get here and are upset about because they require things and they don’t fund them … I cannot support this one, and I don’t know that it’s a good use of our time to debate the mascot/logo here, and instead focus on local control.”

Conner’s case for local control was echoed by others, including Menomonee Falls school board member Mark Nadolski. Menomonee Falls also uses the "Indians" nickname, but the board recently voted to change it, after a lengthy public process. Nadolski said the decision should be left to school boards.

Credit Teran Powell / WUWM
Members of the Menomonee Nation spoke during a press conference ahead of the Menomonee Falls school board's vote to retire its Indians mascot.

“It was a very hard decision for the board to make,” Nadolski said. “But with that said, a measure like this did have a voice for the community and it made for a genuine action for the district to make either way on this topic, rather than making this as a state mandate.”

READ: School Board Approves Retiring Menomonee Falls High School's 'Indians' Nickname

But other board members, like Bob Peterson of Milwaukee, pushed back on the argument of "local control."

“On the question of race, in particular, local control and states’ rights have often been used against the interests of the minorities,” Peterson said. “Specifically, people of color in this country.”

In the end, most of the school board representatives sided with those advocating for local control. The vote was 218 to 101.

“People were saying local control is more important than dealing with what could be a discriminatory practice, such as mascots,” said Waukesha School Board member Kurt O’Bryan, who is a member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe. O’Bryan emphasized that he did not speak for his school district.

Wausau Board President Tricia Zunker was not able to participate in Wednesday’s vote. In a phone call afterward, Zunker said she was surprised and disappointed.  

“This is not an issue of local decision-making,” Zunker said. “It is never good educational policy to stereotype against an entire race of people.”

Zunker says even though the statewide school board association won’t be lobbying against Indian mascots, she is glad to see some individual districts, like Menomonee Falls, take action on their own.

Emily has been reporting on Milwaukee-area education for WUWM since 2018.
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