November 1, 2014

Bill revising Indian mascot law receives hearing

Republican lawmakers want to change the state’s law on Indian mascots. The legislation would raise the bar for people seeking to force school districts to drop the mascots, which have been the subject of often contentious debate in Wisconsin and elsewhere in North America for decades. Defenders of the use of terms for Native Americans and symbols denoting them have claimed they are meant to honor the state’s original inhabitants, while critics of the custom say it is offensive and would not be tolerated in the case of other racial or ethnic groups. They also say it can made for a difficult environment for students who identify as Native American.

Under current law, a single complaint can be enough to get Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction to order a school to remove an offensive mascot. Under this bill complainants would have 120 days to collect signatures equal to ten percent of the school’s population. It would also transfer the authority for investigating complaints from DPI to the state Department of Administration.

The legislation (AB 297) received a public hearing on Thursday before the Assembly Committee on Government Operations and State Licensing. Mike Mikalson is Chief of Staff for one of the bill’s Assembly cosponsors, state Representative Steve Nass (R-Whitewater). “The bill does not deal with discrimination. What the bill deals with is the process,” said Mikalson. “We’re not having a conversation of whether an Indian logo, mascot or nickname is discriminatory or not. That will be left to the process we’re putting place here. That’s a different issue.”

The legislation has the support of Mukwonago School District Superintendent Shawn McNulty. Mukwonago was ordered by the Department of Public Instruction to drop its “Indians” nickname in 2010, but has since taken no action. “The burden of proof is placed upon the district,” McNulty said. “That is completely unfair. We were presumed to be guilty and then had to come to the Department of Public Instruction to demonstrate our innocence. When we got to our hearing in August of 2010, we really never had a chance.”

DPI Secretary Tony Evers has maintained that the revisions sought in Nass’ bill would effectively render the complaint process unworkable. The department feels that for practical purposes, the measure essentially takes away the complaint process, said DPI legislative liaison Jennifer Kammerud. “It sets a bar that would be difficult to impossible to meet in some places.”