“We’re Honoring Indians!”

Carol A. Hand

More than two decades ago, when my daughter was a senior in high school, she received a commendation notice from her French teacher. This was not the first or last, but it was the one I noticed on a different level. I remember “seeing red” when I noticed the logo on the top, yet I immediately reflected on the message – my daughter had demonstrated excellent work. So I complemented her. Then, I contacted the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction (WDPI) to explore what protections they had in place to prevent racial stereotyping of indigenous peoples. The response from WDPI changed my life.


At the time, I was working on a federal grant to address elder abuse in eight pilot counties in Wisconsin. In an effort to promote awareness about the project, I met with a reporter from a local paper. In the process of talking about the project, “Tools of the Trade for Men Who Care,” the reporter and I became friends. We were both outsiders in the largely white, Christian community. She was Jewish, and I was Ojibwe. I mentioned the appalling name and logo used by the local high school, and mentioned that I had been advised by WDPI to wait until my daughter graduated to pursue any action. But, I was told, there was a state statute, the Pupil Nondiscrimination Act that I could use as the basis of a complaint. The WPDI staff added that although the statute had never been tested for its relevance to discriminatory logos and team names, filing a complaint under this statute could set an important precedent. My friend asked me to let her know if I ever decided to pursue the issue.

The months passed and my daughter graduated and went off to a university. I stayed in touch with my friend at the newspaper as the project I was working on gained momentum. Then, I added another job. I was completing my doctorate in social welfare at the time, and began as a teaching assistant in a sociology class on diversity and discrimination. As I faced the 465 students, I realized that ethically I needed to walk the talk and address the discriminatory use of logos by public schools in the state.

My education thus far had taught me two things that appeared relevant to this issue. First, when approaching community change, it is always best to start on the assumption that others may easily agree if approached from a position of collaboration. So I drafted a letter to the superintendent of schools in the district. I asked my diplomatic and thoughtful university advisor to review the letter, and when he commented that it was well-reasoned and balanced, I sent it off. I also sent a copy to my friend at the newspaper.

Second, I expected a thoughtful diplomatic response from the superintendent of schools. If one believes the physics theory that every action results in an equal and opposite reaction, a well-reasoned letter calling attention to unintentional discrimination toward Native Americans should result in the willingness to dialogue, right? That was not the case. The response of the superintendent was to send a copy of my letter to the weekly newspaper in the local community. My friend also broke the story in a larger newspaper on a slow news day. Within a week, I was the topic of hundreds of letters to the editor in local and state newspapers, and featured on the nightly TV news. The community reaction included nasty, degrading personal attacks and threats.

After the initial media blitz, I attempted to reason with the school board at perhaps the best attended meeting in their history. There were at least 100 people in attendance, many of whom were in their 50s, 60s, or older. It struck me as sad that so many elders defined their sense of identity with a high school name and logo. (I had also gone to a school with a winning football team tradition, yet decades after graduation, my identity as a human being had nothing to do with the name or logo of the team – the “dragons.” I already had a tribe to which I belonged.)

I presented my case to the group, and angry community members responded by voicing three recurring arguments: “we’re honoring Indians” (so shut up and be honored); “other schools and national teams do it” (so it’s okay); and “we’ve always done it this way” (so the history of denigrating others and exploiting their cultures makes it acceptable to continue, even when presented with evidence that it causes lasting harm). The most interesting observation voiced by community members – “If we call our team the Red Hawks, the ASPCA will complain about discrimination.” Only one person at the meeting spoke in my defense, a minister who was new to the community. He stated that the entire scene at the meeting reminded him of the civil rights struggles in the South during the 1960s. He added that my position was reasonable, and he was aware that by saying so, he was likely to experience backlash from the community.

It was obvious from this meeting that change would not come willingly from the community. Other change strategies would be necessary if I decided to pursue the issue. So, I undertook a number of exploratory steps. Two brave teachers at the elementary school invited me to speak to 4th and 5th grade classes. My friend from the newspaper came with me, and published an article that highlighted the thoughtful and respectful comments and questions that students voiced.

I spent time perusing the library of two educators who had collected an array of materials about Indian issues and Indian education, copying articles and materials that provided a foundation for understanding the significance of stereotyping for youth, both Native and non-Native. I met with Native colleagues at the university, and they volunteered to circulate petitions to voice their strong objections to the use of American Indians as mascots and logos. And, I reviewed the WI Pupil Non-Discrimination statute, and drafted a formal complaint. I contacted a faculty member in the law school at the university, and he agreed to review the draft and give me suggestions for improvements. (Coincidentally, he had won a Supreme Court case on behalf of the Crow Tribe, asserting the Tribe’s jurisdiction over non-Natives who committed crimes on the reservation, angering powerful forces in Montana. He became a supportive ally for me throughout the legal process.)

The law I was testing required that I deliver a formal complaint to the Principal in person, which meant I had to march into the high school to his office. Two Native friends, both large Indian men, volunteered to go with me. The office was abuzz with activity when they saw us arrive to deliver the complaint. And so began the next phase of what had become both a campaign and a contest.

Because it was clear that the local community was resistant to any change, I decided to take the campaign and contest to a state level. I presented my case to the Inter-Tribal Council comprised of leaders from Wisconsin’s 11 tribes and gained their support. I contacted statewide groups that supported treaty rights and gained their endorsement as well. I put together press packets and met with editorial boards for my friend’s newspaper and the most prominent state newspaper, gaining support from both. And I approached a supportive legislator who agreed to present a bill to the WI legislature to address the use of American Indians in the 60-90 school districts in the state that were then using American Indian names and logos for their sports teams.

The local school district chose to fight the complaint, using educational monies to pay the school district’s attorney thousands of dollars to defend continuing discrimination. The school’s attorney and I were summoned to meet with the Chief Legal Counsel for the WDPI to argue the case. My friend from the law department came with me as support, although I knew that it was my role to serve as the primary speaker on the issue. As the meeting began, it was clear that the Chief Legal Counsel was leaning toward the district’s position. The district’s attorney launched into a loud tirade about how stupid my complaint was, arguing that it was not a proper legal document and my concerns were pointless and silly. I remained calm and focused, and when the attorney finally was silenced by the Chief Counsel, I quietly replied. “I know that I am not a lawyer. But I do know that I am a good writer and I have presented the issue in clear English.” At that point, a major shift occurred. The Chief Counsel looked at me and replied “I, for one, would appreciate hearing a clear explanation of the issues. Please take us through your complaint.” At that point, he became a behind-the-scenes ally. We later found ourselves as co-defendants in court when the school district filed a motion to stop my complaint from moving forward. I was able to secure representation from ACLU, but the district prevailed. The judge ruled that I was barred from moving forward with the complaint. The district celebrated by sending the school band to march in front of my house playing the national anthem and other patriotic songs.

Thankfully, the district’s victory was short-lived. The Chief Legal Counsel took the issue to the State Attorney General who ruled that although I could not move my complaint forward, the statute could be used by others to challenge the use of Indian names and mascots. And despite the court victory, the offensive cartoon that was prominently displayed on the gym wall was removed. (Police cars were parked on the street in front of my house that day.)

The outcome for the community took time, but it was the best resolution. Ten years later, the students themselves advocated to change the name and logo for their sports team – to the Red Hawks. (I doubt that the ASPCA will ever file a complaint.) And every session, my friend in the legislature continued to introduce his legislation to discourage the use of American Indians as names and mascots. It took 20 years for the bill to be enacted. In the interim, he placed a state map with black pins depicting districts with Indian logos and pink pins to denote districts that voluntarily changed to other names and logos as a result of increasing awareness.

As I look back on those years, the most important thing I remember is something I learned from the two educators who shared their library. After I read and copied books and articles for 3 days, they asked me what I had learned. My response was simple. “I have learned that this has been an ongoing issue throughout U.S. history. I am but the voice of the present, and I still have so much to learn. Others who are more knowledgeable than I am will need to follow.”

Many hundreds of friends and allies helped me raise awareness before, during, and after my involvement. In some settings, my voice was perhaps the most effective, and sometimes, others were the most effective advocates. I learned that it is not who serves as the lead spokesperson that matters. What matters is contributing what one can in the ongoing challenge of creating a community, state, nation, and world that promotes inclusion and respect for differences.


37 thoughts on ““We’re Honoring Indians!”

    1. Thank you for the important and creative work you have continued to take on to create more inclusive, humane, and relevant schools. And miigwetch (Ojibwe thank you) for sharing this story. I know my daughter and grandchildren will be grateful as well.


  1. Carol, Thanks for following me and introducing me to intersistere. Several years ago, in Des Moines, IA, another Native American sister – from either Wisconsin, Michigan, or Minnesota shared her video and talk about fighting this same issue. Her video enabled me to express your point of view to others. I was fortunate to have begun my nursing career working in the Navajo and Hopi nations. I find it telling that this country continues to ignore the reality of the First Nation Peoples and their continuing growth despite constant obstacles. I’m so happy you found me and look forward to sharing your journey with intersistere.


    1. Thank you, skywalkerstoryteller. It is heartening to hear that you have been educating others about the issues of stereotypes and discrimination as you work to improve the health of First Nations Peoples. I am glad I discovered your blog and appreciate the chance to learn more about your journey as well.


  2. Carol, thank you for following me and thank you for what you have done. And thank you for introducing yourself a worthy compatriot for sure. Look forward to reading your blogs.


    1. Thank you, larryjben. I appreciate your kind words and enjoy your random thoughts. I look forward to reading more.


  3. “The local school district chose to fight the complaint, using educational monies to pay the school district’s attorney thousands of dollars to defend continuing discrimination.”…I am a wholehearted advocate of public education but as with any entrenched institution, threats to it’s fiefdoms are not taken lightly.

    What a courageous battle you fought with others by your side. Every voice is needed in the struggle. Here’s a post on this topic by John Two-Hawks:


    Best to you, Carol.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Reblogged this on nicciattfield and commented:
    This post, by Carol A. Hand, was both inspiring, and a reminder of the incredible courage it takes to stand up for what we believe in, despite resistance.


    1. Thank you, Nicci. It is true that challenging oppression takes tenacity and a recognition that change doesn’t come quickly or without effort and backlash. But along the way, one finds incredible friends and allies.


    1. Thank you, Meg. It was only possible to take on this challenge because of all of the people who stood up against discrimination in the past and all of those who supported me along the way. The “point person” is only a small part of any change effort — it is all of the others who provide support and encouragement that make change a reality. I am grateful to all of them for their help and I try to do the same for others now.


  5. Carol, you are really an amazing woman. I know if you were my mother or grandmother or aunt I would be bragging that I was related to you to just about everybody. I was watching the video with the news reports and reading your story and I could only imagine how alone you must have felt at times considering how at one point the whole town was against you simply because you had the gall to state your objection to their time-honored tradition of racist stereotyping. The amount of viciousness that was unleashed simply by you pointing out that their tradition of using this “redman” mascot and name was founded on a contempt for other human beings is truly astounding. The part that really got to me the most was when “The district celebrated by sending the school band to march in front of my house playing the national anthem and other patriotic songs.”
    This behavior is shameful enough coming from students and parents but to be sanctioned by the actual school district just shows how people can be whipped into a frenzy by anyone or anything they perceive as being a threat to the “traditional” white patriarchal order.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Caleb, I appreciate your thoughtful comments a great deal, as well as your advocacy on the issue of degrading Native American stereotypes.

      It was sometimes a lonely “battle,” but I was fortunate to have many friends who helped — fellow students, tribal leaders, advocacy groups, legislators, a lawyer who volunteered his time, reporters, and ACLU. I am grateful to all of them, and to you as well for continuing to raise awareness.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Reblogged this on Dolphin and commented:
    Wow. Just wow. Threatening her life over a mascot? Are you serious??
    I admire you, Carol, for your courage and persistence. You were going up against people who are supposedly educated, and should know better…and yet still ignorant of Native American history and how our views have been shaped by the warped history we have been taught. And the history we have not been taught–such as Christopher Columbus and the Spaniards killing the indigenous and the smallpox inserted in blankets handed out to the tribes to kill them through bio warfare.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Dear Carol,

    My name is Ashlee. I’m co-founder of the Youshare Project, with the mission to connect people around the world through true, personal stories. I recently stumbled across your blog and read the above post entitled “We’re Honoring Indians!” It’s well written, incredibly compelling, and an important topic that still has a long way to go in the U.S. alone. I think it would make a wonderful youshare story, because it offers a unique and very personal perspective on this topic and would hopefully spark meaningful dialogue in the U.S. and around the world.

    If this sounds interesting to you, I would love to email you directly with more information and formally invite you to share your story with the project. You have my email address and website. I hope to hear from you soon.


    Liked by 1 person

        1. Thank you, Carol. My apologies, I must be on a delay between email and WordPress 🙂 I replied to your email this morning, and I look forward to continuing our conversation. My best, Ashlee

          Liked by 1 person

  8. No one likes to be told what they hold dear is offensive; what’s worse is when they are utterly unable to see it. It’s like they turn off all the house lights, lock the doors, and pretend not to be home. Only you were standing on the doorstep the entire time they did this. You saw them, they saw you, and yet they can. not. answer.
    Do you see this being a more prevalent problem in the smaller towns? I’ve been to Milton once or twice; towns in the rural areas, where they have little to represent themselves but in, say, school sports, must fight the idea of change fiercely. I’m thankful you are armed with truth, knowledge, and friends to see this through.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for sharing your thoughtful, eloquent comments and insights, Jean. I’m not sure how to answer your question, though. I’m not sure if it’s necessarily the size of a town that matters as much as the insularity of populations in the towns or communities that I’ve lived in or visited. I’ve often felt like an outsider in these places because so many of the people I met had so few opportunities to experience other perspectives. It makes me especially sad to encounter people whose sense of identity and belonging is still based on the (derogatory) name of a high school team decades after they graduate…

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Indeed. No, I think you answered my question the best you could. Much of the matter seems rooted in lack of perspective–now, whether that is brought about by ignorance, or merely the lack of experience, I do not know. I personally was raised in a very conservative Christian household. I attended schools of the same creed until graduate school, where I found my faith and principles were *not* the norm–pretty much the opposite, in fact. And what was my first reaction? Batten down the hatches, everyone else is wrong and dumb and they’ll learn better IN HELL. (say the last bit dramatically)

        Since then, I’M the one who’s come out of her hiding place to listen to others. Of course I don’t always agree, but I’ve seen first-hand how God-awful ignorance can be, and the last thing I want to be is ignorant (or an ignoramooose, as Daffy Duck once said). So I will listen, and talk, and God-willing reach understanding. *That* is what I feel is missing in this country–the willingness to LISTEN. Everyone’s as reactionary as a toddler, and would rather scream and throw things than sit and listen. They think “tolerance,” “respect,” and “love” are like interchangeable words, when in fact these are very, very different concepts/practices that deserve equal attention.

        Pardon the rambling.

        I don’t think Americans of any creed

        Liked by 1 person

        1. I hope you have a wonderful weekend, too, Jean. 🙂

          Again, thank you for sharing such thoughtful and fascinating comments about the importance of socialization in framing the lenses we look through to make sense of our life and the world. As you rightly point out, expanding our views takes awareness, willingness to change, and a lot of hard, sometimes painful, work. (Please don’t sweat the typos. They’re an occupational hazard for all of us and help us remain humble. A lesson I get to live over and over as I edit and re-edit.)

          Liked by 1 person

Comments are closed.

Blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: