Cultural understanding, historical significance at heart of Indian mascot issue
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A sculpture of Chief Big Foot of the Potawatomi tribe is a fixture outside Big Foot Union High School in Walworth. Chief Big Foot once lived on the land where the school now stands and the school name and Chiefs logo are intended to remind people of the chief’s historical significance. File photo.
WALWORH — Early each semester, Kim Blaeser, a professor in the English Department of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, asks students who come into her Native American literature class what they know about American Indians.
Some students got to know American Indians through working on a reservation with a church or youth group. But for many others, there’s been no connection to native culture beyond what they’ve seen on TV.
“What they know about Indians is generally from the Boy Scouts or some movie,” Blaeser said. “They tend to think of native people and casinos, or having special rights that other people don’t, as in hunting and fishing. They know nothing about tribal history, relocation and removal, treaties or reservations.”
That lack of knowledge about American Indians — particularly among young adults — is troubling to Blaeser, an Anishinaabe from the White Earth Reservation in Minnesota, who currently lives in Burlington. And it’s a reason she thinks recent legislation popularly referred to as the “Indian Mascot Bill” is a step in the right direction.
On May 5, Gov. Jim Doyle signed legislation allowing residents to protest to the state schools superintendent if they feel a school name, mascot or logo is promoting discrimination, student harassment or stereotyping. If the superintendent finds such discrimination, the school would have to stop using the depictions within a year or face fines.
Rain Koepke, an American Indian and a senior at Mukwonago High School, which uses the nickname “Indians,” has said he will file a complaint with the superintendent.
Mike Hinske, principal of Big Foot Union High School in Walworth, said officials there haven’t heard of any similar complaints.
The school is named after Chief Big Foot, leader of the Potawatomi tribe, which hunted and fished near the shores of Geneva Lake until relocated by the American government to a reservation in Kansas in 1830s. The building itself is on Big Foot Prairie in Walworth, on grounds where the chief once lived, Hinske said.
Outside the school is a sculpture of Chief Big Foot, holding a canoe paddle and looking out at his surroundings. The sculpture is titled “One Last Glance.”
The school uses Chiefs as its nickname, and the letters “B” and “F” in its athletic logo.
Hinske said the school’s name and logos are intended to remind people of a historical figure closely associated with the area.
Opponents of the new legislation have said that American Indian depictions are meant to honor natives, but many American Indians often find them more denigrating, from terms like “Redskins” to tomahawk-wielding cartoon figures with leering faces.
“It’s not honoring someone if they’re not honored,” Koepke told the Mukwonago Chief newspaper.
That’s a sentiment Blaeser understands.
“Ask yourself, ‘What does this representation mean?’” she said.
Equally important is for depictions of American Indians to be accurate, said Thunder Ruthven, an American Indian of mixed blood, who helps coordinate events like the Delavan Pow-wow.
Ruthven, who lives in Illinois, points to “Chief Illiniwek,” a mascot once used by the University of Chicago who wore regalia local tribes did not wear and did gymnastics, rather than a tribal dance, during halftime at basketball games. The mascot was discontinued in 2007, after being deemed offensive.
“In its simplest terms, it’s a cultural misunderstanding,” Ruthven said. “Often you have a group of people who are unfamiliar with Native American culture and symbols, picking up on things that they really don’t understand. That’s part of what makes the Native American community upset.”
Ruthven, who was raised Catholic by his adopted family, said the inaccuracies “would be like putting pom-poms on the pope.”
Ruthven said cultural images are more than a matter of being politically correct; they are a way to foster struggling native communities.
“Elders are dying every day, and whole stories are not being passed down,” he said. “Native Americans are trying to find their identities and taking steps to preserve their languages.”
For almost 20 years, under state legislation in Act 31, Wisconsin schools have had to provide instruction on Wisconsin tribal groups to all students in each school district at least twice in elementary grades and once in secondary grades.
Marsha Ries, a social studies teacher at Big Foot, said freshmen curriculum includes a unit on both contemporary American Indians and native history.
Ries estimated less than 1 percent of Big Foot’s students are of native descent, but she said American Indians in the area “recognize the respect that goes along with the name of our high school.”
She’s familiar with the work of Stephanie Fryberg, a University of Arizona professor who has done research into the negative effects of mascots on American Indians.
“One of the most important things we try to do is promote understanding,” Ries said. “We tell students, ‘The minority groups we study, they’re people just like you.’”
Talking about real American Indians, not myths, should be part of native education, Blaeser said.
“If the only thing we ever knew about George Washington was that he chopped down a cherry tree and never told a lie, it wouldn’t humanize him at all,” she said. “To tell you the truth, there’s so little history taught about the native people, and it’s been watered down.”
She sees history as a way to better understanding.
“History feeds into the contemporary situation,” she said. “It leads to questions like ‘Why do we have reservations in Wisconsin? Why do Native American tribes have a right to hunt, fish and gather? What does the talk about sovereignty mean?’”
Blaeser has had teachers ask her for materials on American Indians, and she’s taken her daughter’s grade school class to the Indian Summer festival in Milwaukee to help them understand native culture.
Ruthven also wants to see an increase in education of native culture, though he knows there’s “no quick fix.”
“Public awareness ebbs and flows,” he said. “When the movie “Dances with Wolves” came out, interest rose for a while. When (the siege at) Wounded Knee happened, people were interested until Watergate became news.”
People will begin to understand native culture only when they see how much they share, Ruthven said.
“Every story I ever heard growing up Catholic, I’ve heard in older (native) ancestor stories,” he said. “We’re all part of a circle, but set in different places.”
Read the full story in the June 6, 2010 e-edition of Walworth County Sunday, HERE.