In Washington, D.C., as the usual gridlock paralyzes Capitol Hill, another controversy is playing out a few miles away: whether the Washington Redskins should change their name to something less offensive to Native Americans. A number of news outlets announced this year that they would not use the team’s name for publication, and a handful of sports writers followed suit, while the team’s owner vowed to maintain the status quo for as long as he is paying the bills.
It is a debate that is playing out with equal passion but far less attention in states across the country. In Oregon, the Board of Education voted to prohibit schools from having Native American mascots and names. When lawmakers pushed a compromise this year that would allow local schools to seek an accord on Native American team names with nearby tribes, the Democratic governor, John Kitzhaber, threatened to veto it. The state Board of Education in Washington passed a resolution banning Native American mascots last year, and in Michigan, the Department of Civil Rights filed a complaint with the federal Department of Education arguing that the 35 school districts in the state that used Native American imagery were discriminating against their students.
But perhaps nowhere outside the nation’s capital is the battle more pitched than in Wisconsin. There a Democratic governor and a legislature dominated by Democratic majorities in both houses passed a bill in 2009 that opened the door to force dozens of schools to change their Native American names. For Native Americans and advocates of their cause, it was the culmination of two decades of work. But the victory was short-lived. In 2010, Republicans took control of both houses of the legislature, and this month they passed a bill that would require a complainant to collect signatures of 10 percent of the population of a given school district to change a name.
Now the bill sits on Gov. Scott Walker’s desk, and the governor, both a top GOP presidential contender and facing a tough reelection fight next year, finds himself caught in a battle he doesn’t seem to want to fight.
In a recent interview in Midtown Manhattan, where he was on tour to promote his new memoir, Unintimidated, about his efforts to face down the public employee unions in his state, the governor made it clear there was little he would rather talk about less.
“I have nothing to do with it,” Walker said. “Other than that I have to choose whether or not I am going to sign it or veto it, it is nothing that I have advocated. In fact, all the while they were debating it I was asked at press conferences what I thought about it, and I would say, ‘It is not on my radar. If it is not about jobs, lower taxes, improving schools, it is not on my priority list.’”
Adding, “I don’t know exactly what I am going to do with it,” Walker suggested that he favored simply repealing the 2009 law and leaving the decision up to local school districts rather than signing into law the “weird hybrid” that passed this month.
Under the current law, a single objection to a team name or mascot deemed offensive triggers a hearing before the state’s Department of Public Instruction. Opponents of the existing law say the hearings are pro forma, the outcome already decided when someone in the state claims discrimination. And so the Osseo-Fairchild School District could no longer be the Chieftains, and the Berlin High School ripped the name “Indians” off its uniforms and out of its pep rally chants. But the village of Mukwonago refused, even though it faces up to $1,000 a day in fines. The school district said its “Indians” name has an 80-year-old tradition and would cost up to $100,000 to change.
“What we found was that school districts in Wisconsin didn’t have a chance in front of the Department of Public Instruction in Madison,” said Sam Hall, a lawyer who represented Mukwonago in a lawsuit. “They had taken a position, and they were categorically opposed to all Indian-related mascots in all cases. It didn’t matter what the facts were. If DPI found that there was even the potential of a risk of harassment or discrimination based on a nickname, even if there was no actual harassment or discrimination inside the schools, they would rule against the district.”
Hall added that if the new bill is signed into law, students would still be protected by federal civil rights law against discrimination. But in addition to requiring 10 percent of adults in a given district to sign on to a petition, the bill would take the hearings away from the left-leaning Department of Public Instruction and mandate that they instead be held before a board at the Department of Administration, which is controlled by the governor.
The two legislative sponsors of the bill, Mary Lazich in the state Senate and Stephen Nass in the Assembly, both Republicans, did not return repeated requests for comment. The bill’s floor fight was contentious, with Democrats voting unanimously against it in the Senate and the GOP staying nearly as unified. Accusations of racism were hurled back and forth.
“It took us a long time to overcome slavery, and we still struggle to overcome the N-word,” said Sen. Lena Taylor, a black Democrat from Milwaukee. “I hope it makes you uncomfortable when you hear me say it. I wish we were as uncomfortable with ‘savages,’ ‘redskins,’ and ‘Indians.’” Lazich, meanwhile, argued that the bill “has nothing to do with discrimination” but was rather about “balance for our school districts.”
Mukwonago’s Hall said the names were often used as an educational tool in communities with deep Native American histories.
“When we look back at the history of these communities, we find that Native Americans often had a significant role in the development and prosperity of these communities, and that is why the high schools decided to name their schools after them,” he said. “It is source of pride for these communities, a way to talk about the history and heritage of the area” at a time when “the Native American people that live on the reservation are far removed from the land that their ancestors were on, but you can still educate the kids who are 30 miles away from where the reservation is currently located.”
But Bob Munson, an advocate for Native American causes who has worked for decades on the issue, said he disagreed.
“Indians don’t think they are being honored,” he said. “That is saying that none of the Indian tribes of Wisconsin know what is good for them, because every tribe, every official statement has been against this unanimously.”
He cited research showing that not just Native American students but all students perform worse in schools with Native imagery and said the new standard was too onerous.
“If a woman is being sexually harassed, does she need 10 percent of the people in her office to sign on before she can complain?” he asked.
Native Americans make up a little more than 1 percent of Wisconsin’s population, but the area retains much evidence of its Native past, including in its place names, and Native populations have seen their influence grow as they have built casinos on their land around the state. Political observers in Wisconsin said, however, that Walker is likely to sign the bill—it is red meat for his Republican base.
“This is like the nanny state cubed for the base. This is the ultimate proof of the ‘we don’t want to hurt anybody’s feelings’ mentality,” said Mordecai Lee, a professor of government at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and a former Democratic state lawmaker. “People resent being told that the nickname of their high school is offensive. Compared to the eye-glazing public policy that is most of what government does, this is like the death penalty. There is a yes and a no, and everybody has an opinion about it.”
Except Walker—for now.