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OPINION - Undoing an Indian-mascot overreach

by Chris Conley

NEWS BLOG (WSAU)  If you build a brand new school, you wouldn’t name the sports teams the Indians or Chiefs. That would be tone deaf considering how controversial race-based mascots have become. The real issue is what to do for districts that already have team names that, for some communities, date back decades and are a source of local pride.

Native Americans are not of one mind on the issue. The Seminole tribe said it was honored to have Florida State University’s sports teams use their name. The tribe reached a licensing agreement with the school, even though the NCAA announced a ban on indian-names. This gives a stamp of approval to the Florida State football pre-game ritual that would make the PC crowd cringe. A student, dressed in a chief’s headdress with war paint on a white horse rides to the 50 yard line with a burning spear and thrusts it into the turf. All of this is apparently OK with tribal blessing, but would not be OK for other schools.

North Dakota had a statewide debate on whether their college teams would drop the Fighting Sioux nickname and logo. Some bands within the Sioux Nation wanted their tribe honored the same way the Seminole were. Others were activists for dropping indian names altogether. The school will pick a new nickname in 2015.

The University of Illinois was not so lucky. Their teams, the Illini, refer to all people in the state, the same as Hoosiers are associated with Indiana and Volunteers are to Tennessee. But their mascot, Chief Illiniwek, was unredeemable. He’s been scrubbed from the campus, although the nickname stays. St. John’s University called their team the ‘Red Men’ because of the red jerseys their players wore. Even though the name wasn’t intended as an indian reference, it was changed nonetheless. My Syracuse Orangemen are ok -- as long as their mascot is a citrus fruit and not the Saltine Warrior who roamed their sidelines in the 1970s.

Governor Walker faces a decision about an Indian mascot bill that’s reached his desk.

Democrats rammed a bill through with then-Governor Doyle’s support that would have doomed all Indian mascots in the state. Under that law, only one person need complain to start an “investigation”.  The Department of Public Instruction would hold a hearing – even though its leader Tony Evers was on-record saying he thought all Indian mascots were biased on their face. Out-of-district activists were prepared to go from one district to another to claim to be offended and to file challenges.

This was an over-reach and a political mistake. If democrats had passed something reasonable – perhaps a petition drive would spark a community vote on whether an Indian mascot stays or goes – the issue might have been left alone. But now Republicans are trying to undo an excess. Governor Walker could sign the bill and say he’s merely trying to restore balance and fairness. Or he could do nothing and allow the bill to become law without his signature on Thursday. That’s what I predict he’ll do.

Chris Conley

Image:  By http://gallery.mac.com/marchingchiefs (http://gallery.mac.com/marchingchiefs) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons