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Indians mascot not about 'honor'

March 9, 2010

Carol Spindel, who wrote "Dancing at Halftime" in 2000 about the controversy surrounding Chief Illiniwek at the University of Illinois, plays devil's advocate in her book by making a statement difficult to refute.

"There are no big-headed mascots here," she says, describing the scene at an Illinois basketball game featuring a dancing Chief performing during halftime, "no caricatured T-shirts or sideline hijinks, no tomahawk chops or scalp 'em headlines. The appreciation for the beautifully crafted clothing, the dance and the music is genuine. With so much feeling, can this be racism?"

With Wisconsin state legislation proposing sanctions against high schools with Native American mascots - such as Mukwonago's Indians - that remarkably difficult question bubbles to the surface.

On the one hand, the mascot representation can be done tastefully, and probably isn't the greatest of issues facing the state's education system. On another, if someone asked you to picture an "Indian," would you not imagine a costumed, spear-bearing, made-up warrior? Many educated minds can overcome that initial reaction, but it's undeniable that the images created by sports mascots flourish in our perception as credible representations. What about the minds still learning, the ones surrounded every day by these mascots?

I'm not a huge fan of state lawmakers getting involved, but the greater problem is the rhetoric that emerges in opposition to a mascot change. On one local radio program discussing the issue last week, I already heard the predictable responses: "Well, anything can offend you, if you think about it," and, "The schools are honoring the Native Americans - how can anyone be offended by that?"

I understand the fervent opposition. There are scores of alumni who consider themselves "Indians" from Mukwonago, Menomonee Falls and anywhere else using that mascot. It's a small part of a person's formative years and beyond, so the attachment makes sense.

The "anything can offend" argument is pretty juvenile. Choosing an animal, local icon, weather pattern or inanimate object does not present the same risk of offensiveness compared to portraying a racial or ethnic group. End of story, and it's not really worth debating.

The worst offense committed by those who maintain they are "honoring" the portrayed group through mascots is the implied belief that it's our right to honor those groups and uphold their tradition.

In "Dancing at Halftime," one protester outside a Florida State Seminoles football game said the student dressed like a Seminole war leader looked like a "Lakota who got lost in an Apache dressing room riding a Nez Perce horse." It's especially surprising to see this kind of inaccuracy at Florida State, where some Seminole leaders have gone on record supporting the university's use of the mascot.

If the intent is to bring some sort of honor to the represented group, the least a school can do is demonstrate historical accuracy. More than that, cultural preservation should be a task left to the culture itself, and not through an unaffiliated school's secular event.

Furthermore, Native Americans work in a broad spectrum of occupations, listen to contemporary music and wear contemporary clothes. The Indian on a high school gymnasium wall is a caricature, and while discerning minds realize that, it's still not the proper way to "honor" a race of people.

I would think that those who oppose a mascot change have always been Indians and don't want to change now, or they're fed up with society's political correctness. I have no issue with those points of view - so long as they're honest and avoid the lousy rhetoric that the Indian could be just as offensive as "Blue Jay" or "Lightning," and that the so-called "honor" is reason not to change.

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