Mukwonago School Board Receives Three Compassionate Moral Appeals: Invitations to Community and Common Action for the Good of Our Children by Thomas Martin Sobottke


Proponents of a common effort to provide students of the Mukwonago Area Schools with a true education about Indian people in common with school officials and teaching staff were heard at the Monday night, February 24th regular meeting of the Mukwonago School Board at the District Office of those schools.

Longtime Mukwonago teacher and resident Dr. Sandy Shedivy spoke to the board outlining a vision of common purpose. “Imagine the possibilities,” she said, when speaking of what a truer image of native people could do when applied in the curriculum of the district and where staff of the district themselves were given the opportunity to give life to it.

Shedivy was decidedly optimistic despite the lingering controversy over the logo issue in Mukwonago and around the State of Wisconsin. There was expansive opportunity and sense of the fullest invitation in her remarks. “It’s already there to run with it,” she said. As to the ability to do this thing Shedivy gave Mukwonago teachers a distinct vote of confidence: “I know because I work with these people.”

Though Dr. Shedivy was brimming with goodwill and a positive expression of reconciliation, she had to be accurate to the true state of affairs in the District. Her own extensive curriculum review using the District’s own documentation shows a 1989 State Statute and law, Act 31, requiring that Wisconsin school boards “shall” carry out these very educational initiatives is simply not being complied with in Mukwonago. “I see no evidence of compliance,” Shedivy said. She went on to remark “a seven minute video about the Potawatomi people is not sufficient for a curriculum.” The import of her remark here may have been in connection to the requirement that the State of Wisconsin requires our school children to learn about Wisconsin history in the 4th Grade, presumably and truthfully inclusive of Native-Americans.

Barbara Munson, an Oneida woman, and leader of a task force to end the use of Indian nicknames and logos, part of the Statewide educational effort of the Wisconsin Indian Education Association (WIEA), spoke eloquently of the numerous opportunities that the Mukwonago Area Schools, community, teaching staff, Board and Administration can still have despite many previous decisions not to respond to those same opportunities.

We all know that when we confront a great injustice we must speak honestly and directly to that injustice. Mrs. Munson chose to speak to the Board in the form of a series of questions which put in mind how Native-Americans seem to this reporter to wear a cloak of invisibility in relation to the dominant white culture of our nation.

February 12th her organization held their regular Legislative Breakfast where the educational initiatives of the WIEA was the main topic of discussion and where proponents of Indian education and legislators in our State, along with school officials met together to discuss these things as equals and partners. Notably absent were the sponsors of the bill to repeal Act 250 and replace it with a law that recently passed the legislature making civil rights complaints to school districts like Mukwonago more difficult.

Those state lawmakers were Representatives Steve Nass of Janesville, Allen Craig, and State Senator Mary Lazich. In point of fact, this legislative initiative, signed into law by Governor Walker, was specifically tailored to shield Mukwonago from having to face the injustices done to Native-American children and all the children of the District in common with them in relation to its use of their Indian nickname and logo.

On February 13th Chairwoman Laurie Boivin of the Menominee Tribe gave the annual State of the Tribes Address to members of the Great Lakes Inter-Tribal Council’s twelve Wisconsin and Northern Michigan tribal nations.

“How many of you,” Munson intoned with authority, “went home and listened to these remarks in their entirety on WisconsinEye?”

“How many of your classroom teachers assigned listening to this speech to your students in Government and Social Studies classes?”

The entire point here was not that formal invitations to do so and to act this way were made or rebuffed, but that white Americans in the State of Wisconsin and here specifically in Mukwonago COULD have acted this way if they had wished to. It was and is how Indian people react and view the importance of these events among themselves.

“Are you sure you are Indians?” she asked openly of the entire Mukwonago community.

Munson also spoke passionately about what the simple affirmative choice of ending the use of the Indian nickname and logo would mean for Mukwonago:

“Once you change the ‘Indian’ moniker you will not dabble so much in feathers and myths and false histories and current stereotypes. In short, you can stop playacting at being ‘Indian.’”

That affirmative choice is fully in the hands of the School Board of the Mukwonago Area Schools. “It is your choice,” she concluded.

17-year-Mukwonago-resident Michael Langyel, who has had two children attend and graduate from the community’s schools also spoke. Wonderfully, he had no previous formal link at all with the WIEA or anyone supporting both Dr. Shedivy’s and Barbara Munson’s statements in attendance last night. Yet his address to the Board was seamless with the two previous presentations.

He told the Board and this reporter later that he simply had been thinking a great deal, and for a long time about the Indian nickname and its ubiquitous logo. For the benefit of the School Board and Superintendent and Administration, this was entirely his statement and the sharing of his own feelings on this matter.

Langyel took out a stone and related how he had stumbled upon it in walking in the area, on the very land he lives on in fact. Grasping it and hefting it in his hand, and laying his fingers over its shape he related how one edge was flat as if someone even 200 years ago or more may have used it as a tool to grind corn against another stone to make corn meal.

This would be something Native-Americans previously resident on his land—the land he was now living on would have shared with settlers, making explicit his knowing that he was not the first at all to set foot here. This would have been known intimately, by their Euro-American settler counterparts. Corn meal was such a staple of the diet of 19th Century white settlers who learned first about corn from Native-Americans from the very beginning of the English American colonies on this continent and by the Americans of the United States who followed them.

Here was a great-souled spirit of a white man from Mukwonago giving the full lie to the notion that everyone in the community must act to deny the truth about the harm that inaction on ending Indian nicknames and logos here is doing, or the wisdom of responding to three separate open invitations to act in common to make a new and more true and complete curriculum about the real place and importance of real Native people who walked and yet walk these very trails, hills, gentle valleys, woods, streams, People who lived here first for a very long time.

As such, he spoke to the assembled Board and Superintendent with great moral authority. It compels us to listen to that moral appeal he made at the School Board meeting Monday night. We must truly hear and feel with all of our senses what he had to relate to the entire community.

Mr. Langyel said with great sincerity he hoped one day he might give the stone to a social studies teacher who had a great course or curriculum to offer on the lives of Native-Americans resident previous to his people on this very land that connects us—binds us together. How had they lived? What manner of people were they? What is our common human experience? How did it feel to take shelter some cold winter night here in the land carved out by the Ouisconsin River when white Euro-Americans had yet to visit the lands of these people?

So now the words spoken by Mr. Mike Langyel:

“What can you say about what’s left? Respect for them and their history as they were pushed to the edge of extinction. All that’s left is this stone,” lifting it up for all to see; a pause in silence for just that moment: “And this logo policy that makes no sense. It is a great moral wrong.”

This reporter wrote prominently in his notes what did NOT ensue in response to these presentations. It was like the proverbial Gorilla in the room that had left without anyone even noticing. How strange? The silence; just the thank yous’ for each speaker so necessary in polite society and nothing more. There was no interaction with any of the three speakers or their supporters, who in truth almost equaled the rest of those at the meeting—totaling in all some 35 to 40 stout souls who had ventured out in that very cold Mike Langyel was speaking of. Or was it 200, 500 or thousands of years ago?

Nevertheless, later in the meeting the Board had an agenda item addressing the Mukwonago Area Schools’ compliance or absence of compliance with Act 31 and the Waukesha Freeman article of a week previous where School Superintendent Shawn McNulty said that absent Board action the Mukwonago Indian nickname and logo was here to stay. He reiterated that point most forcefully tonight.

And he said he was fully “confident that we are in compliance with Act 31.” How could this be after hearing the findings of an education professional holding a doctoral degree in her chosen field and just over a generation of teaching experience in that very school district? Some room for doubt on that point is the natural conclusion to be drawn from that.

Several persons on the Board gave vent to their feelings, AFTER the WIEA and a concerned and moral man had spoken those words. The cable broadcasts locally provided here to citizens so they may be better informed about a unit of local government in our great American democracy can also be a snare for the unwary public official when viewed at another location in the community subsequent to the presentations of these very strong common appeals to moral rectitude, compassion and care for a common cultural and educational interchange.

McNulty oddly proclaimed he did not agree with what was heard here tonight. Is he that unmoved by such expressions of compassion, love, and common human decency? McNulty denied the “accusation,” his word, that he or the Board had even received communications about such WIEA educational initiatives. The experience left this reporter in many ways with more questions than answers.

Board member Art Schneider focused on what in truth is a wrongly perceived slight against himself by his not receiving any formal invitation versus just a reference to it at the meeting, and this when he had earlier been given the most sincere and direct invitations thee times. It suggests something akin to the thrice denial of Jesus given to Jewish officials in Jerusalem so long ago in the trial of Jesus the Christ by the disciple Peter, also known as Simon.

What we had here tonight was an act of moral denial and denial of a “great moral wrong” and its attendant moral truth on the part of the School Board of the Mukwonago Area Schools. This must be acknowledged even though it might embarrass this unit of local government if known.

In the previously referenced State of the Tribes Address by Menominee Tribal Chairwoman Laurie Boivin she said this about the full import of the logo controversy and inability of school districts to act appropriately in relation to it:

“While the negative impacts on the collective ethnicity are considerable, we are also concerned with the damaging effects and influence that these types of activities will have on our children. In a court of law victims of discrimination are not required to circulate a petition to garner support to prove the action occurred. Why is it that our children are not afforded the same consideration? It was our hope that we would have been able to work with legislators from both parties in finding a balanced approach.

I believe there was a fairly balanced compromise offer but it failed to get serious consideration. Our children should not be subjected to inaccurate representations of their cultural identity.”

The great American poet and Harvard Law graduate James Russell Lowell captured something of great import as a child does in wonder at a firefly caught in a bottle when he observed in the fight against slavery in our mid nineteenth-century that:

“A Pure Ethical Idea cannot be defeated.”

While there is no absolute moral equivalency between the two great moral wrongs of slavery and the denial of the true ethnic and racial identity of a people, the proposition and moral principle applied is precisely the same.

The great question in speaking to you from Mukwonago tonight is when will the Mukwonago Area Schools and the larger Mukwonago community fully recognize the great Pure Ethical Idea that has been repeatedly placed before them?

Dr. Thomas Martin Sobottke
for Struggles for Justice

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