Jon Greendeer got in his car Wednesday morning and headed to Madison to testify at a hearing to essentially repeal a 3-year-old state law that gave residents a course of action if they are offended by the use of Native American names and logos as mascots by Wisconsin public schools.
Sitting before members of the Senate committee, he said he knew he would have to return home and tell his daughter he had failed to make a difference.
“I think the bill’s destiny is predetermined,” said Greendeer, president of the Ho-Chunk Nation, adding the tribal nation had never before decided to send a representative to testify on the issue.
The bill, authored by Rep. Steve Nass, R-Whitewater, and Sen. Mary Lazich, R-New Berlin, was first introduced by Nass in 2010. The bill died in committee.
This time around, it appears the odds are more in its favor. The Assembly Government Operations and State Licensing Committee held a public hearing on the bill last week and it was voted out of committee Wednesday just prior to the second public hearing getting underway in the Senate committee.
It is expected to go before the full Assembly for a vote next week. If approved, it would need Gov. Scott Walker’s signature to become law.
“There’s an elephant in the room that needs to be addressed directly. The elephant in the room is white Republican racism,” said Harvey Gunderson, who has fought to have the Osseo-Fairchild Indian mascot and other districts' logos changed for years. “Some have called the Nass bill the ‘most racist legislation of the current generation.’”
Gunderson said if Walker signs the bill it will brand him as a racist politician, an image the Republican Party as a whole is trying to shake nationally.
“That could be the kiss of death for a politician having national aspirations,” said Gunderson of speculation Walker may run for president.
Although bill authors claim otherwise, the bill would largely repeal a law passed in 2009 under the Democratic Jim Doyle administration. The law, the first of its kind in the country, allowed the state Department of Public Instruction to begin a review process if one complaint was received that a school nickname, logo or mascot was offensive.
The new bill shifts the hearing to the state Department of Administration and away from DPI, essentially giving more control to the Walker administration and less to the non-partisan state superintendent position.
Under the current law, a school district must prove that its mascot or nickname is not offensive if someone files a complaint. But the new bill stipulates that any complaints would have to include a petition signed by 10 percent of the district’s student population saying the logo or mascot is offensive, shifting the burden of proof to those filing the complaint.
“That’s like if an employee of the Ho-Chunk nation felt they were sexually harassed and had to get 10 percent of the other employees to agree (with them),” Greendeer said. “That’s absurd.”
Jennifer Kammerud, DPI’s legislative liaison, said Nass’ bill takes away the complaint process.
“It is setting a level of discrimination into state statute,” Kammerud said. “You have to have your feelings validated by having 10 percent of your community agreeing with you.”
Under the current law, two schools or districts voluntarily changed their names or logos. In addition, four official complaints were received by DPI. Of those four complaints received, three changed their names.
The fourth, the Mukwonago Area School District, is in a legal battle with the state over its use of the word “Indian” as its nickname and the image of a Native American as its logo.
“There is not (nor has there been) a problem with racial harassment or discrimination within Mukwonago High School,” said Samuel Hall Jr., an attorney with Milwaukee-based Crivello Carlson. “Instead, the actions taken by DPI against Mukwonago under current law have been based on the nickname alone – without any evidence of specific harassment or discrimination occurring inside the halls of the high school.”
Those in support of the bill testified Mukwonago has had the name for more than 100 years and it is “part of the community’s heritage” and was not intended to offend its Native American residents.
“It (current state law) created a complaint procedure that has created a tremendous amount of frustration in forcing us to prove our innocence,” said Mukwonago Superintendent Shawn McNulty. “It’s guilty until proven innocent. That’s a process that hasn’t been used since the Salem witch trials.”
In arguing for passage of his bill, Nass said the state’s anti-discrimination statute already provides an avenue for people to take if they feel they are being discriminated against.
“Something can be offensive. But is it discrimination? No,” Nass said.
Madison resident and American Indian Arvina Martin, 33, said the bill was offensive and discriminatory because it allows a group of people to be portrayed in images of the past.
“People are still flabbergasted that I exist here in 2013 in Madison, Wisconsin,” she said. "How come you aren’t wearing moccasins? How many scalps do you have? These are all questions I’ve been asked over the years.”
The hearing seemed to reach the pinnacle of awkwardness when Sen. Neal Kedzie, R-Elkhorn, after sharing he was Polish and used to be called a Polak as a kid, asked Martin how he could tell she was an Indian.
Martin politely explained that was the point; not all people, Native Americans or otherwise, look alike or should be portrayed by an inaccurate logo.
Gunderson from Osseo ended his testimony by asking how this bill and the controversy surrounding it could be good for Wisconsin’s economy.
“This bill is bad for Mukwonago taxpayers, bad for the Republican Party and its reputation for having a race problem, bad for Scott Walker if he aspires to the national stage … but most importantly this bill is bad for children,” he said. “You will be doing a favor to everyone including Mukwonago and your own Republican Party if you let this horribly racist legislation die a peaceful death in committee.”