Lake Country Publications Sports Director JR Radcliffe provides tidbits and details from the Lake Country prep sports scene to the Wisconsin sports world at large. His weekly column presents exclusive interviews, commentaries and observations.
The Mukwonago Indians mascot is in the news again after a Wisconsin appeals court overturned a decision that allows the district to keep it.
Mukwonago has found itself in the cross hairs of a procedure put in place in 2010 that allows the Department of Public Instruction to review a school's mascot – should a citizen lodge a complaint about it – and compel its removal if deemed offensive.
On the one hand, I don’t think the state needed to spend resources reforming something as small as a hometown icon. This is an issue best left to the municipality represented, where everyone gets a vote.
Not only that, I detest the flimsy process aimed at igniting the reform, a complaint procedure that not only puts the school in a guilty-until-proven-innocent situation but also does no favors to the person making the complaint. A change like this needs to be universal, not through a series of test balloons.
On the other hand, I’ve written in the past what I prefer. I don’t think it’s harmless to be represented by the “Indians,” even if all the emotions present in most alumni and supporters are positive ones. And then I hear the rhetoric trying to defend the mascot, and that’s when I begin to feel my viewpoint is reinforced.
I think the more levelheaded onlooker will agree the mascot has potential to cause perception problems and damage to the culture represented. To combat that, it’s important to reinforce that the image is not truly representative of “Indians.” If today’s high schools are serious about limiting the bullying problem, then they should also be serious about educating about the cultures who share our soil.
Classes should be dedicated to teaching the plight of the Native American and also offer a glimpse at the modern Native American. Like Mukwonago has done, schools should weed out the actual visual representation of the Indian – by far the most-offensive aspect of the mascot issue, in my opinion – in favor of the word or something like the “Motion M” you see at midcourt at MHS.
All of that could work. I think harmony could be achieved between the represented cultures and the community at large, but then I hear retorts thrown at those who advocating changing the mascot, and I honestly have to wonder. Here’s what I hear:
“Gee, I guess we should change all the Native-American names, the town names, the river names, the county names!” There is a uniqueness in the high-school mascot that offers a far greater potential for damage than a simple name. Some of that is what I just said – the image carries great influence. A mascot is a caricature (think giant fuzzy tiger jumping around) representing a playful part of our school-going experience. Oddly, it’s also the part of our school-going experience with which many of us identify the most.
Most of us are not Native Americans. We do not have the right to assume their identity in this regard, especially because the portrayal has its flaws. It’s a complicated concept because, in a community that has limits to its cultural, racial and ethnic diversity, we don’t feel that marginalization. It’s not possible for us to imagine someone mimicking our culture because our culture has never been under siege, so we don’t see it with the degree of severity that Native Americans might see.
To say all Native American words in the proper names of our town should be removed is an overreach. A mascot is not the name of a river or town. It’s not just a word to represent an area. It’s a concept, one forwarded in a publicly funded institution dedicated to fostering global awareness.
“We are honoring Native Americans by showing them as a mascot.” They didn’t ask to be honored this way. Again, that might seem like a strange concept to those of us who haven’t been marginalized in our race and background, that we might need permission to pay homage. But without the guarantee of accuracy or the guarantee that those being portrayed actually feel the honor, then it’s a hollow thing to say. You can scrawl “JR is an awesome guy!” in egg yolk all over my car’s paint job, and I may not feel the warmness of the message.
“Well, anything can offend! I’m offended by bluebirds! A bluebird attacked me once!” This is, of course, absurd. Though I openly admit there are gray areas, cultural and human imagery is not the same as an animal. There are thousands of options, and most have a far smaller potential for harm.
Many opponents of “political correctness” prefer someone to tell it like it is. Here’s an example: It’s a poor starting point to a conversation if you try to convince me an animal has the same potential for offensiveness as a cultural icon. Speaking of which …
“You’re just being too sensitive. Why does everything need to be so politically correct?” My identity means a lot to me. Who I am, my family and my belief system are some of the most crucial aspects of my life. I would be sensitive if someone completely misunderstood that and, in my personal viewpoint, made gestures that were damaging to it. I would want a chance to right the misconception. This part of my identity is far more personal than what my high school used as a mascot, and I like to think I would respect that if given the choice between someone else’s personal heritage and my school logo.
This is the most basic institution of discovering ourselves and our world. Of all places, shouldn’t this be a place where “political correctness” is an OK thing, where every opportunity is given to portray the world accurately and from multiple angles? The real world is a sour place sometimes, and yes, there are some simple facts about life that aren’t fair. It doesn’t mean we have to start that way, forcing people to be unhappy just because we don’t see or care how the mascot could be so hurtful.
The change gang
Change is not something that comes easily, particularly when folks are being asked to change something they’ve been used to as long as they can remember. Furthermore, nobody likes the inference that harboring an attachment to “Indians” is racist or otherwise insensitive.
I can understand why people want to keep the Indians mascot. There are so many positive memories attached to it, and it’s something shared by generations within many families. I don't even think it's a bad reason in this case to say "I just don't like the idea of being forced to change." This issue can be discussed intelligently, and proponents of keeping Indians should be able to admit there is possibility for harm, increasing the importance for us to listen, to understand and to be thoughtful.
Those retorts undermine that intelligent discourse and, to me, offer glimpses that we might not be responsible enough to properly handle the Indians mascot.
Pictured: "This is Indian Country" will remain at Mukwonago High School until all the appeals have been hashed out. (Photo by Carol Spaeth-Bauer)