MENOMONEE FALLS — Wisconsin is home to 11 Native American nations and tribal communities - including the Oneida Nation, Menominee Indian Tribe, and Ho-Chunk Nation. The state is also home to nearly 30 school districts that use Native American themed mascots, logos, or nicknames, like the "Indians" and "Chiefs."
A resurgence in a decades-old debate pits those who say these images celebrate culture against those who say they perpetuate stereotypes.
To fully understand each side of the debate, we are going "360" by talking to a congressional candidate pushing for state legislation requiring the removal of Native American mascots from schools, a school board president who says the conversation should remain local (without state laws getting in the way), a leader from a national group who believes erasing the imagery from schools eradicates Native American history, and to a high school senior who is part Native-American himself - one young voice that contributed to having the Menomonee Falls Indians mascot retired just this past year. That's where we will start.
"I switched sides, I started off wanting to keep it," said Nathan Russell about the Menomonee Falls Indians mascot. Russell is about 25 percent Native American and is a senior at Menomonee Falls High School. This is the first year the school's mascot is the "Falls Phoenix." It changed after months of public debate. Russell remembers the "Indians" being a nickname that he became uncomfortable with when other students used it to their advantage during sporting events.
"They would be misrepresenting the culture, which is kind of the part in the back of my head thinking, if you're going do it, do it right, first of all, and if you're going to do it right learn it from the people who are here and have kept that culture alive through what's going on," said Russell.
The conversation about "misrepresenting culture," and "doing it right" is a conversation happening statewide.
The Wausau School Board voted last year to ban the use of Native-American mascots in schools. School Board President Tricia Zunker led that push. She is now running for congress and working to become the state's first Native-American elected to the position. In that role, she hopes to get the Native American based mascots, logos, and nicknames banned everywhere in Wisconsin.
"They undermine the educational experience of all students, they exacerbate cross-community conflict, and they create a hostile learning environment for Native students to learn in that can have lifelong detrimental consequences," said Zunker.
Zunker introduced a resolution last year to the Wisconsin School Board Association that would give the association a push to call for statewide legislation. The resolution failed to pass so she's back at it, hoping to re-introduce a similar resolution this year and continuing to argue that statewide legislation is needed.
"This isn't a local issue. [The mascots, logos, and nicknames] don't stay confined within the school district boundaries and they just perpetuate offensive racist stereotypes," said Zunker.
Mukwonago School Board President Erika Conner disagrees that there is a need for state law. In fact, she has voted against Zunker's proposed resolutions in the past.
"Certain things are very important in different areas and regardless of how you feel about the mascot, I believe local control is very important because of that whole demographic people because of what communities are known for and what they stand for," said Conner.
Mukwonago High School is home to the Indians and Conner says in the past when debates have sparked over the use of their name, the majority of the community has made their opinion clear.
"They came out in support of maintaining that mascot," said Conner.
Setting the school board opinions aside, the Native American Guardian's Association, created to represent the voice of American Indians, says no laws should ban the use of Native American Imagery in this way.
"We see it as cultural genocide," said Tony Henson, who is a part of the Associations leadership team.
He said the group opposes cartoonish depictions of Native Americans and racist mascots but says nicknames and logos can still be used to preserve Native American Legacy.
"Too many of these schools have had their native themes for all of these decades and have not done anything to educate about Native Americans and that's the stance of our organization is educate, not eradicate," said Henson.
A common theme in the interviews was that people on all sides of the issue believe more education about local tribes and the history of Native Americans in Wisconsin is overdue and should be a priority.