“Thank you Rain Koepke for challenging the Mukwonago Area School district’s race-based “Indian” Nickname and logo and its mascoting behaviors. I wish the Mukwonago Area School District the very best as it negotiates this change. The challenges now are for the district to develop a creative change process and to provide a supportive and safe environment for all its students regardless of which side of the issue they have supported.”
-Barbara E. Munson Wisconsin Indian Education Association
“I hope that the Mukwonago decision encourages other school districts with race-based “Indian” nicknames, logos and mascots to be proactive and begin to work towards the inevitable change.”
Robert Munson, Wisconsin Indian Education Association
The most basic human justice was done yesterday, when the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction declared: “On or before October 8, 2011 the Mukwonago School District shall terminate its use of the “Indians” nickname and the logo depicting the head of a male person wearing a feather headdress.”
This is a victory that can be shared, oddly enough, by both those who favored the change and those who did not. For in the end this is the right thing to do. The Mukwonago Area Schools showed wisdom by deciding to immediately abide by the decision and not appeal it via the courts. The removal of a symbol and name that were doing tangible harm to the students of the district is the acceptance of responsibility for the welfare of others. It is among the greatest responsibilities we can accept in this life and Mukwonago has done that.
In its decision, the Department, speaking with the legal authority of the State of Wisconsin found the district to be in violation of s.118.134, Stats., and PI 45.01 (3) of the Wisconsin Administrative Code.” Essentially, the district was unable to produce “clear and convincing evidence” to “refute” the “presumption” that “the distict’s use of an unabmiguously race-based nickname and logo is presumed to promote discrimination, pupil harrassment, or sterotyping.” It is also a point of fact that the State of Wisconsin has not found any overt act of discrimination by the District in this case either.
What was pointed to in the ruling handed down yesterday to the people of Wisconsin was that “Empirical research indicates exposure to American Indian stereotypical images lowers the self-esteem of American Indian students, reduces American Indian student’s belief their community has the power and resources to resolve problems, and reduces the number of achievement-related future goals American Indian students see for themselves.”
Mukwonago High School Principal Mr. Shawn McNulty spoke to students at the high school as they prepared to close their school day yesterday. He accurately informed them of the decision and that the District will not fight this further and that the Mukwonago Area Schools will begin a program that will involve the community to help select an entirely new nickname, mascot, and logo that will presumably not be race-based or ethnically based. Mr. McNulty showed real enthusiasm in his voice for the upcoming process of moving on and making this change. It does him credit. The reaction of the school board and the district superintendent were not referred to but no doubt will appear in the press today and in the coming days both locally and statewide.
The most startling and perhaps the most significant change in the district’s position might be that they have accepted the findings of the volumes of empirical and peer-reviewed studies that show real psychological harm is done to children by these race-based nicknames and logos.
An odd discordant note was struck in the address by McNulty to students though, in that he continued to take the District’s line of argument that the entire controversy only came about due to the interference of one person. Though he wisely did not name the individual concerned, the entire student body and community knows who he is. He went on to make clear to students that a great deal of resources had to be expended by the district in fighting this case and that expense has deprived students in the district of the full benefits of the education they deserve. Putting the blame on the victim at this late stage does not do the district credit. Using the young man who came forward to lodge the original complaint in this matter at law as some sort of scapegoat or safety valve so that students, parents and the community will have someone else to blame in the years to come is not helpful. It is morally wrong.
In point of law, fact, and that which is moral and right, the young man in question, Mr. Rain Koepke, had every right to bring to a unit of government his complaint in the matter and seek basic redress of grievances guaranteed to citizens in several places in the United States Constitution. There is ample legal precedent for a single person seeking redress, and having that legal result applied more generally to persons who are similarly situated within the larger polity that is the people of the United States. This obsession that it was “the mere whim of a single individual” still clings to the Mukwonago Area Schools like a stench that will not leave. They can remove it by simply abandoning this explanation for what has occurred. It does not stand the test.
More importantly, it will be important for students especially to be able to internalize that this decision in the end was for what was right all along and that they too can and should be a part of that victory for justice. Let us not deny them that opportunity to get on the train of justice. It has room for all and always is ready to slow down and stop to pick up new passengers. Mukwonago officials here want that train to leave the station immediately and at full speed, before students, staff, parents, and the larger community can come to a full understanding of the ruling and begin to think of a better future for themselves and all of us.
The most wonderous aspect to this case is Mr. Rain Koepke himself. He stood alone against an entire community and unit of government and his peers and advocated for justice with dignity, restraint, persistence, firmness, non-violence, lawfulness, and right and he prevailed along with all those who believe in justice and right. This is precisely the kind of citizen the Mukwonago Area Schools spends millions of dollars a year to produce! A citizen who is active and informed as to public affairs and who sees what is right and then stands for it and advocates for that right using the legal system and law of our land established just for the purpose at issue here. This is what we want all citizens to be. The students who honorably and with lawfulness and dignity stood on the other side of the issue must receive praise as well. They are already showing us they will be good citizens too.
So, Mr, McNulty, go back on the PA again and tell students that the cost the district paid in defending the logo was a decision they made. That this is sometimes the cost of the democratic process that schools teach our children all their formative years. There will be issues in controversy from time-to-time and that justice, and respect for law, can actually have a monetary cost that is worth expending. Most importantly here in this case, the District has been free at any point in this process to have simply agreed with the complainant, and retired the nickname and logo. They did not. If anyone in the Mukwonago Community has a complaint about the decision to spend real resources and time and energy on this fight at the expense of students they should take this matter to the Mukwonago Area School Board where the full responsibility lies.
Mr. Rain Koepke is the kind of citizen who deserves a National Medal of Freedom bestowed by the President of the United States. But he is not well-known, young, and just beginning his lifelong committment to social justice and right and law. Such awards are customarily bestowed on those who have won many such fights for justice and have done so according to law, non-violence and moral right. Rain Koepke has won just such a fight. It is his first. This writer knows there will be many others to come and the nation will be better for it. His tribal elders may wish to bestow some token of honor upon him as a man of his tribal nation. It would be appropriate. The elders of his tribe will know what honor to bestow. It is well deserved.
The victors here are the entire American people. The result in this case should, like a stone thrown into a still pond, ripple across the nation and cause other school districts and colleges, universities and sports teams to consider finally doing the right thing and remove these nicknames and logos from the national landscape. This victory can permit more people to expand their vision of hope and justice and to finally see the right and join in the struggles for justice for us all. “With Liberty and Justice for All” is what Mukwonago students pledge each morning. Let it be so.