Mascot debate resurfaces in Shawano

School board being asked to support ban of Native American mascots
The old Shawano Indians logo as it appears on the state championship banners in the Shawano Community High School fieldhouse in a 2013 file photo. The school’s mascot was changed in 1992. (File | NEW Media)
Lee Pulaski
City Editor

SHAWANO — The Shawano School District made the decision 27 years ago to part ways with its Native American mascot, the Indian, in favor of becoming the Shawano Hawks.

However, 31 of the state’s 423 school districts still have Native American mascots, regarded by many as racist, and the local district has been approached by the Wausau School District to become a co-sponsor on a resolution for the Wisconsin Association of School Boards asking for the state to ban such mascots from its halls of education.

The resolution was first brought before the Shawano School Board on Monday, with plans to discuss and vote on whether to join Wausau in presenting the matter to WASB at a future meeting. Board president Tyler Schmidt pointed out that a school district in Sun Prairie voted to support it, along with Madison.

However, two board members made it clear during the meeting they were on opposite sides of each other on the issue.

Board member Michael Sleeper, in response to a question of whether Shawano should get involved in the debate, said the issue is black and white

“It’s controversial. I get that,” Sleeper said. “To me, there’s only one position to take …”

“And that is to stay out of other people’s business,” board member Mart Grams said, interrupting Sleeper’s comment. “It’s not our business to tell another district or community what to do.”

Sleeper strongly disagreed, feeling the issue is bigger that any single community and what it prefers.

“This is a broad-base issue,” Sleeper said. “We shouldn’t make an excuse for something morally unacceptable.”

Grams took offense at Sleeper’s assertion that supporters of Native American mascots are on the wrong side of the moral gauge.

“It’s not morally unacceptable,” Grams said. “Don’t make it a moral issue. It’s a local, community issue. It’s not going to hell if you say the words. It’s a mere local concern.”

Schmidt said it’s up to the board whether to support the resolution, and whether it actually goes anywhere is out of the board’s control.

“Some folks from the Wausau district are willing to come to area board meetings to say their piece,” Schmidt said. “This is just food for thought.”

The Wausau resolution points out that having a Native American mascot in schools “teaches non-Native American children that it is acceptable to engage in culturally abusive behavior and perpetuate inaccurate misconceptions about Native American people, culture, history, sovereignty, government, customs and traditions.”

The resolution also indicates that Native American mascots and nicknames are offensive to tribes. Shawano is within 30 miles of four out of 11 Wisconsin federally recognized tribes — Menominee, Stockbridge-Munsee, Ho-Chunk and Oneida.

Shawano School Board member Chuck Dallas suggested talking to the two closest tribes, the Menominee and the Stockbridge-Munsee, to get their input on the matter.

The resolution would support any legislation that would require school districts to retire Native American mascots. Wausau School District pointed out that there are native and non-native students who have transferred into the community from districts with native mascots, and athletic teams have to travel to other districts for competition and are subjected to such mascots.

The American Psychological Association called for the removal of Native American mascots in 2005.

Shawano was ahead of the trend. In April 1992, the school board voted 6-3 to retire its Indians nickname to become the Hawks. Then-superintendent Fred Davel had proposed the change because the mascot at the time, which had been in place since the 1920s, was antagonistic to its native students, which comprised 12 percent of the total student population at the time.

The next board meeting is Aug. 19, and the district could take up the resolution then. If the resolution moves forward, it would be presented at WASB’s annual convention in January, according to Schmidt.