Wisconsin school district votes against changing American Indian mascot despite court ruling

  • Article by: TODD RICHMOND , Associated Press
  • Updated: July 23, 2013 - 6:00 PM

MADISON, Wis. — A southeastern Wisconsin school district has formally refused to change its American Indian nickname, openly defying state education officials' order to dump it.

The Mukwonago Area School District's sports teams are known as the "Indians." The district also uses a logo depicting an American Indian man wearing a feather headdress. The state Department of Public Instruction contends the nickname and logo promote discrimination and have ordered the district to remove it by this fall.

The district's attorney, Samuel C. Hall, said the board voted 8-1 Monday night to adopt a resolution stating the district would take no action to change the name. The resolution notes that the district has used the nickname for more than 100 years and has taken "special care" to treat American Indians with dignity, including teaching incoming freshmen about the area's American Indian history.

"The use of the 'Indians' nickname and associated logo have been and continue to be a source of pride related to the local history of the Mukwonago area," the resolution said. "Further, the District believes that decisions regarding the use of nicknames and logos are best left to local elected officials who better understand local history."

Barbara Munson, an Oneida Indian who chairs the Wisconsin Indian Education Association's Indian Mascot and Logo Task Force, lamented the district's move.

"We're dealing with a civil rights issue," she said. "This choice by the school board serves no good moral purpose."

The resolution marks another chapter in a long-running fight between the district and DPI over the nickname and logo. The battle began in 2010 after Democratic legislators passed a bill allowing DPI to force schools to drop race-based nicknames, logos and mascots if someone complains about them and the tribe the mascot or nickname references hasn't given its consent. A Mukwonago-area resident filed a complaint about the district's nickname two months after the law passed.

DPI consultant Paul Sherman held a hearing and determined the nickname and mascot were raced-based, the district didn't get permission from any tribe to use them and they promote discrimination. In October 2010, the agency ordered the district to drop the nickname and mascot within a year.

Two parents in the district sued, contending DPI was biased because the agency had advocated against race-based nicknames. They also argued that changing the nickname and logos would cost them money as taxpayers.

Hall has estimated the changeover for Mukwonago would cost $100,000. The school district sent a list of expenses to DPI in January 2011 that included $30,000 to change uniforms, $1,200 to change its diplomas, $1,000 to change banners and $2,050 to change academic medals, among other costs. According to the latest figures on the district's website, more than 5,200 students attend the district's six elementary schools, middle school and high school.

Waukesha County Circuit Judge Donald Hassin Jr. sided with the parents, concluding the law was unconstitutional. But a state appeals court ruled in January that the parents had no standing to sue. The district appealed to the Wisconsin Supreme Court, which announced last month it wouldn't take the case.

That triggered a letter from DPI on June 28, ordering the district to remove the Indians name and logo by Oct. 8. The letter warns the district that DPI will conduct an on-site review to verify the district no longer uses the nickname and logo.

"The department reminds the district of its obligations ... to take steps reasonably calculated to create a school environment free of race-based harassment or discrimination," the letter said.

DPI spokesman Patrick Gasper said in an email to The Associated Press that the agency has to enforce the law. He said the agency gave the district a tiered plan to help it come into compliance.

But Hall said the district believes the circuit judge's finding that the law is unconstitutional is still valid because the appeals court ruling dealt only with the parents' legal standing. The nickname and logo hasn't created any harassment or discrimination, he added.

The district's resolution implores legislators to repeal the law. Rep. Stephen Nass, R-Whitewater, began looking for co-sponsors for a bill that would do just that on Tuesday.

"The inclusion of political correctness in the law and a slanted DPI hearing process grants an absolutely unfair administrative power to the DPI and an impossible standard for school districts to defend against complaints," Nass wrote in an email seeking co-sponsors.

Republicans control the Assembly and Senate, but the measure's prospects are unclear. Spokespeople for GOP leaders in both chambers didn't immediately return a message.

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