US & World

Beware, Braves: Wis. Targets Race-Based Team Names

File photo: The Blackhawk's team logo are seen on the back of a truck through a fence outside of the United Center, the home of the Chicago Blackhawks, February 16, 2005 in Chicago, Illinois.
File photo: The Blackhawk's team logo are seen on the back of a truck through a fence outside of the United Center, the home of the Chicago Blackhawks, February 16, 2005 in Chicago, Illinois.
Tim Boyle/Getty Images

School team nicknames like the Chieftains and Braves may soon be a thing of the past in Wisconsin, where a new law allows the state to ban race-based mascots and logos. If a complaint is upheld, school districts face fines of up to $1,000 a day. But residents disagree over whether the new law is needed.

The day Wisconsin's new sports-mascot law took effect, Oneida tribal member Carol Gunderson and her husband, Harvey, drove three hours to the state capital, Madison, to file their complaint in person.

The reason, Carol Gunderson says, is "because it's the first law in the whole United States that addresses this issue. We didn't want it to get lost in the mail."

The Gundersons are targeting the Osseo-Fairchild School District's team name, the Chieftains. When they got to the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, Harvey Gunderson handed Patrick Gasper, the agency's communications director, an enormous blue binder of documents to back up their claim.

The evidence, Harvey Gunderson says, "not only shows that what Osseo-Fairchild has done, but what the other districts have done in the state also, that they really are promoting discrimination, pupil harassment and stereotyping."

Looking Past The Local Level

The Gundersons submitted 550 pages of research that they say proves discrimination against Native Americans. And they hope their research is useful in fighting Indian mascots nationwide.

"We think this is the beginning of an important new trend," says Harvey Gunderson. "Civil rights matters do not happen overnight."

It's been 42 years since the National Congress of American Indians challenged the use of Native American mascots. Today, an estimated 900 high schools and colleges still use Native American names and images for sports teams. And of course, there are the professional teams -- the Chicago Blackhawks, Cleveland Indians, Atlanta Braves, Kansas City Chiefs and Washington Redskins, among others.

A Long-Standing Dispute

For decades, Native American civil rights groups have called on these teams to change their names. They've had little success. But Dave Czesniuk, of the Boston-based group Sport in Society, thinks the Wisconsin law may turn out to be a game-changer.

"I think what's going on in Wisconsin is exciting, and it's a true sign of real change," he says. "You know, social responsibility is on the rise, even in the ranks of professional sports and the corporate level."

Czesniuk says attitudes have changed since the 1970s, when an estimated 3,000 schools and colleges had Indian mascots. He says the key to making the case is teaching team officials and fans how they perpetuate stereotypes and hurt some Native Americans.

But then again, some Wisconsin lawmakers pushed that argument for nearly 30 years before their mascot bill became law. And many school and professional teams argue that their mascots honor Native Americans rather than degrade them.

Bob Kliebenstein of Tomah, Wis., says that was the case with the Tomah Indians. He's still upset that the school board changed the mascot to the Timberwolves a few years ago. He says there's no telling where the mascot wars will go next.

"Right now, the trendy thing seems to be to get rid of Native American mascots. And in three to five years, the trendy thing might be to get rid of animal mascots. And after that, who knows? We might all have to just be one mascot, just real generic."

Law Provides Fines -- And A Loophole

Meanwhile, the Osseo-Fairchild District may be subject to a state hearing, as officials investigate the Gundersons' mascot complaint. If the complaint is deemed valid, the district could be fined up to $1,000 for every day it keeps using the Chieftains' name.

But there's a twist. A provision in the law says schools with mascots specifically named after a federally recognized tribe could keep it, if they have that tribe's permission. The legislator who penned that in is a graduate of Auburndale High School -- home of the Apaches.

Copyright 2010 Wisconsin Public Radio.

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