As voters go to the polls on Nov. 4, they should remember that Republican lawmakers and Gov. Scott Walker passed a law supporting race-based mascots in our state even though all 11 of Wisconsin's tribes oppose such mascots.
The GOP's action goes against Wisconsin's legacy as a pioneering place of freedom. Slavery has been outlawed here since the Northwest Ordinance of 1787. We are the birthplace of the party of abolition, as well as a historic incubator of unions. We’ve produced leaders of movements for social justice and racial equality.
Most of my youth and school days were spent in the village of Mukwonago. In 2013, Mukwonago disobeyed Wisconsin’s Department of Public Instruction order to change its high school’s race-based “Indians” mascot. The order was issued under Act 250, which was signed in 2010 by Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle and provided a reasonable process for petitioning to replace a high school's Indian mascot.
Emboldened by Mukwonago’s noncompliance with state law, Republican legislators proposed AB 297, which includes a discriminatory grievance process unprecedented in United States history. Last September, I drove to Madison to testify against the legislation before a Senate committee. That is where I met Barb Munson, an Oneida woman with the Wisconsin Indian Education Association’s Indian Mascot and Logo Task Force.
Even though all 11 Indian tribes in Wisconsin have consistently and unanimously condemned native mascots since 1991, the only thing that seemed to matter to the majority of senators was whether or not they had votes enough to pass the bill. Even a last minute compromise was defeated. The saddest part was that most legislators in favor of AB 297 were not even in chambers to hear opposition. The bill, which makes it almost impossible to get rid of race-based mascots, was rammed through the full Senate 17-16.
These events culminated during November 2013: Native American Heritage Month. Munson called it a “sharp stick in the eye of Wisconsin’s native children.”
Thousands contacted Walker via tweets, emails, letters, and phone calls. The Great Lakes Inter-Tribal Council again spoke in a unified voice, yet Walker had the audacity to go on TV and lie through his teeth to reporters, saying the mascot issue was “not on his radar.” Walker stalled as long as possible, and then signed AB 297 in willful ignorance, even improperly citing free-speech laws. Journalists compared Walker's blunder to "Duck Dynasty" patriarch's comments on gays.
Wisconsin’s Act 31 has been in place for decades to ensure proper education about Wisconsin’s 11 Native American tribes. While some school districts are pioneers in implementing Act 31, it could be said schools in Wisconsin that still stubbornly retain Indian mascots are maliciously ignoring tribal council resolutions, and basic current events. Therefore, by merely keeping its discriminatory mascot, that school is, de facto, in flagrant noncompliance with Act 31, perhaps to the point of negligence. If a negligent district wants to be compliant, they must listen and respect tribal resolutions and change their mascot.
This perpetual ignorance about Native Americans is Wisconsin’s disgrace, but it happens from sea to shining sea. From coast to coast, Native American families are fighting for respect in their own school districts. Even with medical experts supporting them, they fight to be taken seriously when they explain how appropriation of Native American imagery is tantamount to identity theft. The ongoing psychological harm this does to native children is nothing short of nationwide, government-school-sponsored child neglect.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and Dan Synder (owner of Washington’s Racial Slurs) bank billions off bigotry and bullying. But Walker, state legislators, and school officials must be held accountable for spending millions of our citizens’ tax dollars to directly, continually and unapologetically inject racism into our children via our public education system.