Cornjerkers Pass the Test. Redskins Don’t

by Anne P. Wright

When the Wauwatosa, Wis., School District became embroiled in a school nickname and mascot controversy, the administration and school board decided to compromise: Keep the name but get rid of the mascot.

School districts around the country are facing public pressure to abandon school nicknames and imagery depicting American Indians, which opponents say are racist. In Wisconsin, State Superintendent Elizabeth Burmaster sent a letter to all district administrators last December urging school districts that still use American Indian logos and/or mascots to find “positive alternatives.”

“There was significant opposition to changing anything initially,” says Wauwatosa Superintendent Phil Ertl, and most of the resistance came from school alumni. The administration’s recommendation to the school board was to keep the school name, the Red Raiders, which board members recently supported in a 5-2 vote. Since the vote, opposition to other changes has ceased.

The school district has begun removing all imagery related to American Indians, according to Ertl, and students and community members will be involved in choosing a new logo to replace the existing one, which depicts the Red Raiders name with an arrow through it.

Ertl hopes the Red Raiders nickname will go unchallenged. After 16 years, he says, “LaCrosse Central High School is still the Red Raiders.” Ertl personally researched Wauwatosa’s nicknames and found there was a history of red, the school color, dating back to when the school symbol was the cardinal.

The school district also will begin diversity training for school staff. “Just changing a mascot doesn’t do justice to anything,” says Ertl, adding 25 percent of the district’s students are minority. “We’re focusing on doing the right thing.”

Time will tell whether the Red Raiders name will endure. “Our belief is that at some point we’ll be beyond the point of anything related to Native Americans and we’ll still be able to be the Red Raiders,” says Ertl. “It’s an issue of time and making sure we did our part in letting people know why we did what we did.”

Similar Response
Like Wauwatosa, the Morrisville-Eaton Central School District in rural upstate New York compromised by keeping its nickname, the Warriors, while losing the American Indian imagery.

“The school name was never an issue,” says former Superintendent Nelson Bauersfeld of its Warriors moniker. The neighboring Oneida Indian nation wasn’t offended by the school calling itself the Warriors or by the logo (a headshot of an American Indian), he said. “But we wanted to wean ourselves away from the logo.”

That’s because State Education Commissioner Richard Mills requested that school districts change logos depicting American Indians. Morrisville-Eaton school uniforms no longer carry a logo, and school stationery now is branded with a medieval-looking crest. “The crest had been around a long time,” says Bauersfeld, now superintendent of the Mexico School District, north of Syracuse. “We just weren’t using it.”

A database of 18,000 records documenting high school mascots found that 10.6 percent of high schools nationwide had American Indian mascots, with Indians and Warriors being two of the top seven, according to Ellen J. Staurowksy, a professor at Ithaca College in Ithaca, N.Y. The top nine mascot categories either were carnivorous animals or American Indians. About 1,500 schools either have stopped using images related to American Indians or somehow altered the imagery, according to Staurowsky.

In Wisconsin, Northern Ozaukee School District Superintendent Bill Harbron is getting ready to bring this issue before the school board and will use Burmaster’s letter — and others he received from the Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association and Religious Americans Against Indian Nicknames and Logos — to open a dialogue.

“I told them this [issue] isn’t something we can put under the table,” says Harbron. “We need to decide what direction we need to go with this. What do they feel needs to be done and what do they feel is the right thing to do?”

One of the issues board members will have to address is whether keeping the school nickname, the Warriors, and logo, a profile of an American Indian in headdress, violates the school district’s core values developed four years ago. “Would you call a team the Hispanics or the African Americans?” asks Harbron. “I think the board will struggle with this conversation.”

Harbron predicts the major community resistance to a name and logo change will come from community members “whose identity is still tied to the high school, even though they are in their 40s and 50s.” One option would be to keep only the school nickname, he says, because a warrior isn’t exclusively associated with American Indians.

State Intervention
While some school leaders believe decisions about school nicknames and logos are best made locally, others, like Harbron, would welcome a state response to the issue. “Why doesn’t the state pass legislation?” asks Harbron, who says state action would remove the onus from superintendents about how to handle the problem.

Harvey S. Gunderson, president and co-founder of Religious Americans Against Indian Nicknames and Logos, agrees that state lawmakers should intervene because of the attitude among school districts that “we’ll change when they require us to change.”

“The state athletic association or state legislature can bring about change,” Gunderson says. “This often is too hot an issue to deal with locally.” The National Collegiate Athletic Association has a policy prohibiting colleges and universities from displaying hostile or abusive mascots, nicknames or imagery at NCAA championships.

However, what finally prompted the Huntley, Ill., School District to change not only the mascot, an Indian chief in headdress, but also the team name, the Redskins, was the threat of a lawsuit.

“Most administrators favored changing the mascot, while the school board opposed the change,” says Assistant Superintendent Terry Awrey. “The school board finally decided it wasn’t going to spend money on a lawsuit — that money should be spent in the classrooms.”

More Nicknames
While American Indian names, mascots and logos have received the most attention and caused the most controversy, administrators agree that other names could become subject to the same kind of scrutiny. Harbron, who has a student with dwarfism attending a district school, says schools should consider all nicknames with negative connotations.

Succumbing to public pressure, the Illinois’ Pekin High School Chinks changed its name to the Pekin Dragons and the Naperville Central Redskins are now the Redhawks, according to Fred Willman, a retired teacher and author of Why Mascots Have Tales: From Appleknockers to Zippers.

While some nicknames, such as the Cornjerkers or Fighting Zee Bees, are silly or unusual, others are downright offensive, according to Willman. Consider, he adds, the Midgets, the Savages, the Jungaleers, the Peg Legs, the Satans, the Orientals and the Deaf Hoosiers.

So far, schools seem to be safe with nicknames from the animal kingdom: the Bears, Bulldogs, Cougars, Eagles, Hawks, Tigers and Wolverines.

“There are lots of names people can take issue with,” says Bauersfeld, the superintendent in New York state. “Most schools have become pretty comfortable with animals.”

Anne Wright is a free-lance writer in Falls Church, Va. E-mail: