Wisconsin school ordered to drop Chieftains nickname

By Scott Bauer
Madison, Wisconsin (AP) July 2010

The Osseo-Fairchild School District in western Wisconsin was ordered July 27 to drop its Chieftains nickname and logo after the state determined it was race-based and promoted discrimination and harassment.

The state Department of Public Instruction’s first-of-its-kind order comes under a new state law that went into effect in May. The law allows the agency to order schools to drop their race-based nicknames and logos if they are deemed discriminatory.

The ruling could mean more of the 34 other districts with similar American Indian-based names may be forced to drop them or face fines of $1,000 a day. Two other complaints – over the use of the nickname Indians for schools in Kewaunee and Mukwonago – are pending.

Debate has raged for years in the Osseo-Fairchild district over the Chieftains name. Fifteen residents filed a complaint over the nickname and logo, which depicts an American Indian in a feather headdress, on the same day the law took effect.

Both the school superintendent and the citizen who led the effort to get rid of the logo said they hope this provides an opportunity for the community to heal and move forward.

“We think it’s going to be a very positive time during the next year,” said Harvey Gunderson of Osseo, a 65-year-old retired university professor and Osseo High School graduate. He has worked with his wife, Carol, since 2002 to get the Chieftain nickname eliminated.

Carol Gunderson, a member of the Oneida Nation, said the Chieftains name and logo trivializes her culture and religion and is hurtful to American Indian children at the school. Members of six different American Indian tribes live in the district, according to the DPI order.

“This was a moral and ethical issue,” she said.

The school has one year to stop using the Chieftains logo and nickname or face fines. The decision on whether to appeal the ruling will be up to the school board, said district superintendent Edward Dombrowski.

“For me the most important thing is what effect is this going to have on the kids in the community,” Dombrowski said. “It really split the community. I’m really hoping this becomes an opportunity for us to pull together.”

The order by DPI School Administration Consultant Paul Sherman noted that the district doesn’t have the permission of any federally recognized American Indian tribe to use the name or logo. The order determined that using it amounts to stereotyping, discrimination and student harassment in violation of state law.

Wisconsin is steeped in Indian history. Eleven tribes still make their homes in the state and many communities take their names from Indian languages, including Minocqua, Sheboygan and Waukesha.

Despite that history, Wisconsin schools have been moving away from American Indian logos, mascots and nicknames over the last 20 years. Thirty high schools had dropped them as of May, according to the Wisconsin Indian Education Association’s “Indian” Mascot and Logo Task Force.

When the Osseo Chieftains and Fairchild Dragons merged 42 years ago, the community was divided over the decision to keep the Chieftains nickname, Dombrowski said. In recent years, there’s been a deep division over whether to keep it or come up with something new, he said.

In response to those concerns, in 2004 the district enacted a policy to educate people about Indian history and limit the use of the nickname and the logo, which was redesigned in the likeness of Frank Thunder, a Ho-Chunk Nation leader whose descendants signed off on the arrangement.

Even so, the DPI order notes that district didn’t present any evidence to contradict academic research that has shown the use of race-based nicknames and logos like the Chieftains promotes discrimination, harassment and stereotyping.