By Steve Gunn
MUKWONAGO, Wis. – Over the course of the last century, many sports teams representing American K-12 schools and colleges adopted racially-based nicknames.
Some of those nicknames have come to be resented by minority groups, and their unhappiness is certainly understandable.
Some states have acted to bar the use of racially-based nicknames. Some K-12 schools and universities have voluntarily dropped such names. But in other communities, the nicknames have become part of the local identity, and residents are hesitant to part with tradition.
Such is the case in the Mukwonago, Wisconsin school district, where the school sports teams have been known as the “Indians” for more than 80 years, and the logo is a depiction of a Native American man wearing a headdress, according to TwinCities.com.
Wisconsin lawmakers passed legislation in 2010 giving the state Department of Public Instruction the authority to force schools to drop race-based nicknames if a complaint is filed and the department determines that the nickname is discriminatory.
A Mukwonago resident complained about the local school’s nickname and logo, and the DPI instructed the school district to drop them, according to the website. Some local parents appealed the order but an appeals court judge ruled against them last week.
The district now has until 2014 to drop the nickname and logo. But Mukwonago Superintendent Paul Strobel says the district has no intention of cooperating.
Strobel said district officials have asked members of the state legislature to repeal the law governing school nicknames, and a group of parents is preparing to ask the Wisconsin Supreme Court to hear the case.
This is a difficult situation.
Many school nicknames and logos involve caricatures of Native Americans that are less than accurate or flattering. Most were adopted in another era, when racial sensitivity was not taken into consideration.
But many of the nicknames have become woven into the fabric of their communities and mean a great deal to residents. The locals don’t see them as an attempt to offend anybody. They see them as part of a cherished local tradition.
They look at pro sports teams like the Washington Redskins and Cleveland Indians and wonder what all the fuss is about.
No matter how this disagreement turns out, there will be resentment on the losing side.
Perhaps a good compromise would be to poll Native Americans living in the Mukwonago area to determine how they feel about the nickname and logo. After all, the original complaint was apparently filed by just one person.
If a majority of Native Americans feel demeaned by the nickname, school officials should voluntarily let it go. If that’s not the case, perhaps the state should reconsider its decision.
That’s just one idea to deal with a very delicate controversy.