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Friday, February 27, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 6.0° F  Fair
The Daily
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Indian mascot names need to go
But the Wisconsin Legislature is about to make it harder

What if they were the Mukwonago Polacks?

There was a time not so long ago when that derisive term for Poles was commonly used even in the Polish neighborhood I grew up in on the south side of Milwaukee. And, in truth, the term can still be used without offense among my own people, just as a similarly degrading term to describe African Americans can be used among American blacks without insult while it would be a huge affront if it came from me.

That's as it should be. Racial and ethnic groups get to decide for themselves what terms used to identify them are acceptable and which are offensive. It's a complicated case of history and context, and it evolves. A term that might have been accepted in one period acquires baggage over time, or a group simply achieves a level of confidence to push back on a word it always found distasteful.

The main point is that I can't decide what's offensive for blacks or Asians or American Indians any more than they can determine what I find offensive as a person of Polish descent.

So if Native Americans have come to the point where they believe it's time to dispense with high school, college and professional team mascot names that they find are no longer appropriate, if they ever were, then who am I, and who are state legislators, to disagree?

But that's exactly what's going on. Here in Wisconsin, the Assembly just passed a bill that would largely repeal a law passed by a Democratically controlled statehouse just three years ago; the Senate will consider the bill next month. The current law puts the burden on a school district to prove that a mascot name is not offensive. But the new Republican bill would, among other things, require that at least 10% of the school district's population sign a petition asking that the mascot be changed.

Jon Greendeer, president of the Ho Chunk Nation, quoted in The Capital Times, put it succinctly. "That's like if an employee of the Ho-Chunk Nation felt they were sexually harassed and had to get 10% of the other employees to agree [with them]," he said. "That's absurd."

He's right. It is absurd. Just as absurd as the pushback at the national level to change the name of the Washington Redskins football team. There the team's owner has been defiant -- and backed up by the league -- in his refusal to even consider changing the name of the team.

The Wisconsin bill is largely in response to the obstinacy of the Mukwonago school district. While other districts have changed their team names in response to complaints (and nationally two-thirds of the 3,000 or so schools with Indian mascots have changed their names in recent years), Mukwonago stubbornly clings to the "Indians." The district has gone so far as to waste its taxpayers' money on a lawsuit challenging the current law.

Why is this so hard? If someone is offended by a mascot name, why not just change it to any one of a million names that wouldn't offend anyone?

Well, Marquette University might be a case study in difficulty. In 1994 Marquette changed its team names from the Warriors to the Golden Eagles. It remained controversial for a decade until there was an attempt to change it back. In response the trustees did something that made everybody angry. They changed the name to the Gold.

After another arduous debate and a referendum (that's right, a referendum), MU went back to Golden Eagles, and it has been a settled matter ever since.

People who want to hold on to team names that others find offensive like to say that it'll never end. It's a line of argument popular on angry talk radio shows. It's the argument of false logical extremes, and it has three steps. First, state something that is true, like the fact that many Native Americans find Indian mascot names offensive. Next state something that is preposterous, like the idea that meatpackers might someday find the Packers' name derogatory. Finally, conclude that if Native Americans can demand that Indian names be changed, then someday meatpackers might call for the Packers to change their name.

Are meatpackers ever going to be offended in Green Bay? Will home brewers demand that the Milwaukee baseball club stop referencing them? Will whitetail deer call for the Bucks to change their name? (Okay, based on the way the Bucks have played for the last decade or so, the deer might have a point.)

Teams change their names all the time. It's not that big a deal. The Tampa Bay Devil Rays became just the Rays. The Cincinnati Reds were once the Redlegs and before that the Red Stockings. The Washington Wizards used to be the Bullets. Even the Redskins were originally the slightly less offensive Braves.

I bet that a lot of folks who live in Mukwonago share my ancestry. If they couldn't live with the Mukwonago Polacks, then they sure as heck should understand the problem with the Mukwonago Indians.

Dave Cieslewicz is the former mayor of Madison. He blogs as Citizen Dave.

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