Revisiting Where I Began as a Blogger

Carol A. Hand

In honor of the fifth anniversary of Voices from the Margins, I am sharing one of the first posts I wrote about a life-changing choice I made many years ago to tackle an emotionally laden issue. The essay was originally posted on a blog I shared with the friend who taught me the ins and outs of blogging in 2013 and was reposted here along with other essays when this blog was started on February 12, 2014.

***

“We’re Honoring Indians!”

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.

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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.

***

It is sometimes hard to look back on those years without thinking I should be doing more. Still, at this point in my life, it feels far more appropriate to serve in a less visible way, teaching, encouraging, and supporting younger people behind the scenes. There’s much that can only be learned through the experience of taking on issues that light a fire in one’s heart to create a world that could be.

 

24 thoughts on “Revisiting Where I Began as a Blogger”

  1. This is a great piece (again) I did not realise your Wisconsin roots. My very first pen friend lived in Wisconsin, (is there a town called Antigo? It`s 55 years ago and my memory is not so good.) Her name was Luann Zangle and I have often wondered what she did in her life. Your piece reminds me quite a bit of me and some of the battles for justice and respect, inclusion and equality I have fought on behalf of others, you don’t give up and you don`t allow ignorance to intimidate you.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Carol, as I am sure you are more aware than I, a system of government, such as this one, is never going to be changed for the better of the people/individuals involved. This statist system is, and has always been, operating just as it was intended to operate from its very beginnings.

    Any political activity meant to change, or ‘fix’, this statist system for the better, is simply a waste of time and energy, and history is my witness. A despotic, genocidal system of government, such as this one, can only be torn down, piece by piece, and never be allowed to rise again. Aldous Huxley once stated that, if there be a hell. this planet must be another planet’s hell (my paraphrase). Capitalism is a curse!

    But having stated all of this, I know nothing will ever change for the better of humanity, since humanity seems very content to be ruled over and enslaved, over and over again, by a tiny minority of inbred psychopaths.

    You know this much better than I, Carol, as your post, here, reveals! It was my paternal ancestors who helped create this hell on earth. And this, along with many other reasons, is why I despise this government and its obedient and faithful herd of cattle, whether on the left, middle or right.

    Sorry, didn’t mean to go on this long!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. It isn’t pleasant to admit, or say, but I concur with Sojourner with my studies of history, the years and experience to back it up. We struggle to establish a bit of temporary political correctness but we are not touching what really matters and that is the sad part. There must come a complete end of this civilization and if it’s in the cards; if the right kind of people survive the collapse, the rise of a new “thing” which may not even be a civilization but something much superior: the rise of the self-empowered, independent thinking, compassionate, empathic true human. Are we going to decide this, or are we going to allow the mindless future to dictate what becomes of us and our world?

      Liked by 3 people

      1. “There must come a complete end of this civilization and if it’s in the cards; if the right kind of people survive the collapse, the rise of a new “thing” which may not even be a civilization but something much superior: the rise of the self-empowered, independent thinking, compassionate, empathic true human.”

        I could not agree more, Sha ‘Tara! Let us set our hopes, sights and energy on this kind of world,. for all future generations, a life worth living!

        Liked by 2 people

  3. Excellent blog post. I remember my own passages through similar “unpopular” attacks on the status quo, the times when a death threat became a shot in the arm, with the thought, ‘yeah, they’re scared their privileged position may be successfully challenged and they be forced to make changes within the way the view and interact with society.’ Who the “they” were varied depending on the issues, whether is was farmland protection, protests against environmental degradation of lands, streams and air due to unregulated commercial and industrial expansion or CIA destabilizations and genocides of indigenous peoples in Central America, particularly during the Reagan contras years. The conservative rednecks came from all walks of life. I look back and I wonder, since all was eventually lost, would it have been better to just let it go and watch the chaos and inevitable downfall move in quicker with perhaps less sorrow and death? Today, in retrospect, I wonder if our struggles amounted to a hill of beans, or if we were misguided in our efforts? I know I would not do it the same way again – I never return to methods that have failed. As was written ages ago, ‘the heart of man is deceitful above all things and beyond cure.’ So I have observed. We can change surface things like sports team logos but is the heart, the essential mind, actually changed in the process? These are my questions as an ‘elder’ in my own right. How do you change the heart/mind, Carol?

    Liked by 4 people

  4. I really don’t think you should be looking back and thinking you should be doing more Carol! I think you were a brave and determined young woman who did more than many of us will ever do and you’ve then gone on to continue to educate and give support. Be proud of your achievements 🙂

    Liked by 5 people

  5. Thanks so much for sharing this, Carol… Your courage is more than commendable and hopefully, things are changing. Battles abound around the country (including my own state of Maine). The media remains on top of this issue and people of all generations are beginning to listen.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. My congratulations, dear Carol! How strange, my blog celebrates its birthday on the 11th…We are almost twins 🙂 And thank you for your ardour & inspirational subjects. We all fight together for the better of the world. And it will become! I believe in that together with you! 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Happy 5th anniversary to your blog. You chose an exceptional piece to commemorate the anniversary. It seems that the struggles never end. And sometimes we all feel that we haven’t done enough. But we do what we can, when we can for those things that matter. Pax.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I remember this post, Carol. It was so powerful then and continues to be powerful today. Congrats on your five years of blogging, sharing your thoughtful words and beautiful writing. When I think of you and your blog I remember your gentle strength. ❤

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Carol, first congratulations on your five years of blogging! 😀🌺🎈

    Wow! I had not seen this post but it must be one of the most powerful and heartfelt of any first ones. Your courage and conviction is commendable and I am in awe of you, that you pressed ahead with so many against you.

    I am shocked by the anger and vitriol you came up against and what shines through is the help of the few brave ones. You made a huge difference … and it all started with your daughter’s note of commendation.

    Never think you should have done more, please. Be proud of your achievement and the ongoing change. This had a huge impact and still does.

    It must have been heartening to talk to the students themselves early on and hear their reasoned comments … so much more receptive than the angry crowd at the school.

    But for people like you the bigotry and discrimination would continue.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. I admit I scanned past the image, initially as I was reading the text. Then I looked back and thought – WOW. I think it’s amazing what you did. You and many others make such a large difference, something that not many people would have even been able to accomplish. Keeping a calm head in those positions is amazing.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Bravo, Carol! It is not easy to fight “city hall” (my mom always said that 😉)…or school boards…or an angry mob set upon attacking you!! It is not easy to get people to see that change is necessary and then be able to actually see the changes.
    Thanks for sharing your story! Hope you are well 😁💜

    Liked by 1 person

  12. You are a courageous woman, Carol. You are an example of both standing up for what is honorable and working behind the scenes as you teach the next generation of leaders. Too many begin to stand up only to be encouraged with fear tactics to back off. You stood when others would have turned away. I bow to you and the courage, wisdom, perspective…and leadership that you so clearly showed everyone in your actions (and still do). Happy blogging anniversary!

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Bravo, Carol, for having the bravery to fight for what you know was the right outcome even it if took a decade and even if the fight continues on so many other levels today. Change is slow, people are engrained, and they can be mean when their way of life is threatened, but keeping your head and your well-reasoned arguments made all the difference. You are a role model for the rest of us. xo, pam

    Liked by 1 person

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