Why would a group of white Prescott High School students in Prescott, Wisc., fight for a bill to end the use of Native Americans as mascots, carry their concerns all of the way to the State Capitol in Madison and get Gov. James Doyle, a Democrat, to sign the bill into law on May 5?
For these dedicated students and their teacher Jeff Ryan, the victory was sweet, and it may set a precedent for other states to follow. Perhaps these high school students can teach a lesson to the petitioners on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation and the Spirit Lake Reservation in North Dakota, that to be denigrated at sporting events is not an honor. It places Native Americans on the same level as lions, tigers and bears. As the students proclaimed, Native Americans are people, not mascots.
If these non-Indian high school students can figure that out, why is Fool Bear at Standing Rock, and more than half of the tribe a Spirit Lake not listening? To be mimicked, ridiculed and aped at sporting events is not an honor and these white high school students "got it!"
The bill passed the Wisconsin Assembly by a vote of 51 - 43 and it passed the State Senate nip and tuck at 17 - 16. But, if not for the dedication and the presentations by the students at Prescott High School, the bill would have never passed. At the hearings leading up to the introduction of the bill, Native Americans from the different reservations in Wisconsin were in attendance and not a single one of them spoke out against the bill: They were all united behind the students.
As one of the tools Ryan used in his classroom to educate the students about using Native Americans as mascots, he read some of the columns I have written for the past 28 years. He and his students communicated with me all during the progression of the bill. And I was amazed to observe the dedication the students devoted to this issue. It was their school project. What started out as a lecture in November of 2008, became a law in 2010.
After the victory, Maddie Smith, one of the students, said, "It is still hard to believe that it takes legislation to ensure that different cultures are treated with respect."
Another student, Brenna Ryan, said, "We were so happy when the bill finally passed. What many people fail to realize is that this bill has been in the legislature for 16 years. There have been so many people (Native Americans) who have been working for so long to make the dream of eliminating Indian mascots and logos come true in Wisconsin and around the United States. Hopefully other states will follow what our state legislature did and once and for all decide that using race based mascots and logos in public schools does not honor Native people - it hurts them. The Native people are friends and it is time we started treating them that way."
Jack Simones talked about the things he learned from the process.
"The only way this issue can be fully understood is that you have to live outside of your own bubble and living in Wisconsin, a state with 11 Indian reservations, it makes sense that we develop that empathy and understand that the Native people of our state have a rich history that needs to be recognized, celebrated and honored appropriately in our schools and not with half-time chants and jigs at football games," Simones said.
Some of the folks that have been fighting this issue for nearly 30 years, people such as Charlene Teeters, an art instructor at the American Indian Art Institute, and Michael Haney, now deceased, a Seminole, who blanched at the Seminole Tribe's disregard for feelings of other Indians in America by continuing to allow their tribe to be used as a mascot for Florida State University, a university that has reduced their once proud name to "Noles," would have stood and cheered the courage and dedication of these Prescott High School students.
These students did not go without sharp, and oftentimes, nasty criticism from their friends and neighbors in Wisconsin.
"Why in the hell are you doing this?" was one of the most frequent questions they encountered.
As Teeters, Haney and I know, they did it because they wanted to correct a blatant wrong, a wrong that most Americans have never made the effort to understand. American Indians are human beings and not mascots for America's fun and games.
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Tim Giago, an Oglala Lakota, is the publisher of Native Sun News. He was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard with the Class of 1990. His weekly column won the H. L. Mencken Award in 1985. His book Children Left Behind was awarded the Bronze Medal by Independent Book Publishers. Giago was inducted into the South Dakota Newspaper Hall of Fame in 2007. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org