The subject of Indian school mascots will pop up again on Wednesday. The former Legislature approved a law requiring school districts to remove Indian logos, if they offend any residents. To keep the logo, the district must prove to the Department of Public Instruction that the name and caricature are not offensive. On Wednesday, a Waukesha County judge is expected to rule on the constitutionality of the mandate. Two Mukwonago residents are contesting it. They claim it’s vague and that the state violated their rights by not giving notice of a hearing. WUWM’s Marti Mikkelson visited Mukwonago High School, which has been given more time to remove its Indians logo and nickname.
As you approach Mukwonago High School, the big blue and gold sign on the front lawn catches your eye. It depicts a warrior in Indian headdress. Next to the warrior, the sign announces the date, time and temperature as well as upcoming school events. Principal Shawn McNulty says the Indian logo appears elsewhere.
“We have it on letterhead, we have it on business cards, we have it in various places throughout the building, we have it on some uniforms,” McNulty says.
We duck under yellow tape and through a narrow doorway leading to the gymnasium. Workers are tearing up the wood floor and preparing to install a new one. The word “Indians” written in the middle will soon be gone. McNulty says the school is pouring over sample designs, but when student-athletes show up for practice in a few weeks - he expects them to see the school’s initials “MHS” or something else generic.
“Whether we put a fast M or something else, we’ll see but we won’t put an Indian logo or the name Indians on it at this time,” McNulty says.
A water pipe burst a few weeks ago, and that’s why the school is replacing the gym floor. Otherwise, the principal says, the Indians nickname would still be there. The Department of Public Instruction ordered Mukwonago to remove all references by October. McNulty says the district began soliciting ideas for new nicknames, but has been reluctant to change.
“Most people in the community feel very strongly that we should not have to change the nickname and the logo and part of that is the strong history of the Indian nickname in Mukwonago, part of it is there is obviously a lot of Native American history here in our community. The name of the village itself, Mukwonago is Native American,” McNulty says.
Mukwonago means “Place of the Bear,” so McNulty says a few people have suggested the school change its mascot to Bears or Grizzlies. One student who does not want change is Hank Mattson, a junior on the varsity wrestling team.
“We’ve been raised hoping to be Indians when we grew up and they’re going to cut it off halfway through our school. I think we show it proudly so if we don’t disgrace it at all, I don’t see how it could be offensive,” Mattson says.
Mattson says he has never witnessed disrespect at wrestling matches or other sporting events. Another person I run into is Assistant Basketball Coach Kyle Barton. He finds advantages to a new image.
“I’m trying to focus on the positive and where can we go with this new logo? For example at the basketball games we could finally have a mascot, if it’s a bear or whatever else we come up with. That’s something my little daughter might get a kick out of, a mascot running around. Obviously we did not have a Native American mascot running around to be disrespectful to anybody,” Barton says.
Principal Shawn McNulty told me the district decided not to erase the Indian references last year, but instead waited to learn who would be elected to lead state government. He says district leaders were confident Republicans would reverse the state order. But the Republican chairman of the committee assigned to the matter, favors the law, so a repeal went nowhere. Yet another GOP Representative, Steve Nass, says the fight will resume in fall.
“The Republicans have long fought this legislation because it literally allows one person to challenge a school district, it is extremely costly and there’s no loss to the individual. You can simply have a grudge match and that one person can simply file the compliant and then let the bureaucracy take over from there,” Nass says.
Nass hopes leadership will assign the issue to a different committee. Democratic Sen. Spencer Coggs of Milwaukee says repealing the mascot law would be a step backward. He authored the rule when Democrats controlled the Legislature.
“It saddens me greatly because it doesn’t take into consideration how much progress we’ve made since we passed the bill. Members of communities are now getting along again. This threatens to open up a racial divide in several communities in the state of Wisconsin,” Coggs says.
Another school district, Osseo-Fairchild, complied with a state order to remove its Indian logos. The Kewaunee district removed its references without requesting a state hearing. While the issue is stalled in the Legislature, Republicans did extend the deadline for Mukwonago to remove its Indians mascot until January of 2013.