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Milton residents glad Redmen controversy is in the past

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Neil Johnson
November 14, 2013

MILTON—There's nothing offensive about Rocky the Red Hawk, Milton High School's giant, sweater-clad bird mascot.

Rocky is a symbol of community pride, the school bird whose likeness is sold on T-shirts in the school apparel store and at the local supermarket. Sometimes, Milton Superintendent Tim Schigur even dons Rocky's costume to rally young students and staff.

It's the Milton Red Hawk way, but it wasn't always.

Picture the superintendent wearing moccasins, a headdress and brandishing a tomahawk in front of first-graders. Roll the clock back to before 1999—pre-Rocky—and it could have happened.

Milton students now wouldn't remember, but for 60 years Milton's school nickname was the Redmen. For some of those years, the Redmen logo was a caricature of a tomahawk-wielding, hook-nosed warrior.

The school board in 1999 threw the Redmen out in favor of the Red Hawk, causing a community uproar. The move came years after a single resident's complaint.

Now, 14 years later as Wisconsin considers changing laws regulating school nicknames, some Milton residents who were involved in the Redmen controversy say they're glad the issue is in Milton's rearview mirror.

"I don't want to say it (the Redmen) is a dead issue, but it's by the wayside," said Milton Schools District athletic director Brian Hammil, who was a basketball coach at Milton in the 1990s. "Kids and many others, teachers even, have no allegiance to the old nickname, and that's OK."

'A REAL TOUGH TIME'

The board's ouster of the Redmen name sparked a furious campaign by a group of Milton residents who opposed the change and felt their opinions weren't being heard. The group successfully petitioned for a recall election for three school board members who'd voted for the name change.

The recall failed to oust board members, but Mike Pierce, a board member at the time, remembers the bitter feelings and weight the decision had lain on the board and the community's shoulders.

“I'll always say it was the right thing to do to change it, and I've never regretted it. It hurt, and it was a real tough time for the community," Pierce said. "I had some people, alumni, that didn't talk to me for several years. They got over it, and they started talking again. They got over it."  

Now, Pierce said, the old nickname doesn't come up often.

"It seems to have died down. At my (Milton) class reunion five years ago, people made it a big deal, but this time, at my reunion a couple months ago, they only talked about it in passing," he said.

The board's decision was one of the first times in the state that a school board took direct action to get rid of a mascot or nickname.

The level of local control Milton exerted over its own school nickname has since been scaled back under state law, and now it could be rolled back even further under a new state proposal.

A bill headed to Gov. Scott Walker's desk would amend a law Gov. Jim Doyle signed in 2010 that gave the state Department of Public Instruction authority to order schools to remove Indian mascots and nicknames if a school district receives a single complaint the mascot is offensive.

Under that rule, it is a school district's responsibility to prove the nickname or mascot is not offensive and does not promote discrimination.

Under the proposed change, anyone issuing a complaint to get a school mascot or nickname thrown out would be required to have a petition signed by 10 percent of a school district's population.        

The law also would strip the state Department of Public Instruction of authority to rid schools of mascots. Complaints instead would go to the state Department of Administration's Division of Hearings and Appeals.

Instead of school districts or school boards being involved in a decision, the person petitioning the complaint would have to prove to the appeals board that the mascot or nickname was offensive or discriminatory. 

The new bill, a Republican-backed measure, was passed by both the state Assembly and Senate. Gov. Walker is now reviewing the bill, a spokeswoman for his office said in an email this week.

Opponents of the proposed law say it would be a backslide into institutionalized racism in schools.

Supporters say the bill has nothing to do with racism. They say it's about setting up a more fair process for deciding whether race-based mascots and nicknames are appropriate.

A FESTERING ISSUE

The Milton School Board exercised local control over mascots in its 1990 decision to get rid of its ax-wielding Indian mascot, which was painted on a huge mural on the gymnasium wall and emblazoned on banners and school apparel.

“Everybody seemed to agree that (the Redmen mascot) was inappropriate. He was hopping, he was on the warpath. I had no problem taking that down,” former school board member Al Roehl said.

Though Roehl opposed the mascot, in 1999 he was among two board members who voted against getting rid of the Redmen name. He saw the issue explode around the community.

"The biggest uproar was that one person could start this whole rigamarole (removal of a mascot and nickname). They have a right, but it steamrolls and I didn't agree with that," Roehl said.

A Native American family that has since left Milton had complained about the school nickname, but the board was indecisive about the issue for years. A lawsuit to remove the nickname failed, although the district did not use the mascot image for several years.

For nearly a decade, the issue festered, even as the school's sports teams wore jerseys that depicted neither the Redmen logo nor the name.

The Redmen issue reached a boil in 1999, when the school board decided in a 5-2 vote to throw out the Redmen and launched a committee that chose Red Hawks as the new nickname.

The decision came amid heated debates and packed school board meetings, some attended by Native American groups, residents and students fighting for and against the name change.

Retired Milton High School social studies teacher Dan Reese remembers talk in the school hallways and daily debates in class on the mascot issue. He remembers alumni who felt betrayed by the change.

There are still some high schools in the area that have held onto their Indian nicknames, including the Big Foot Chiefs and the Fort Atkinson Blackhawks.

“I feel for the communities that would be faced with the same thing. It was not easy on all sides,” he said.

Hammil remembers the nickname issue snowballing as local rancor grew.

“It drove all community discussion, all dialogue at board meetings. It was one thing, always: the nickname,” he said.

Hammil said it could have helped if the state had intervened at the time.

“It would have been great if the state DPI or the DOA had some rules then. We could have deflected it. It wouldn't have been personalized locally so much,” Hammil said.

“As it was, the board was breaking new ground on the issue, and they were in the corner. They had to make the decision. The political pressure was so great," Hammil said.

SCHOOL PRIDE

Kelli Cameron, who was a class president at Milton High School in the late 1990s, was in the thick of the decision. She was among a group of students who challenged the board for the right to wear Redmen T-shirts the district had banned, and she sat on student panels that tried to find a mascot and a nickname everyone could live with.

"We had so much pride in our school. It wasn't pride in the mascot and the logo. It was pride in our school," she said.

Looking back, Cameron called the students' T-shirt fight "trivial," but she said the process of Milton deciding the mascot issue taught her that local governments can work through some problems on their own, despite the difficulties.

“I'm very proud that I'm from a community that could look at something serious and make an important decision on its own. I recognize that more and more as time passes,” Cameron said.

“People did not sit back and have the state tell them what to do. That showed a lot of guts.”

Hammil remembers his own Milton High School days in the 1980s, when students dressed in Indian head dresses at basketball and football games. He said he's glad the mascot issue is long gone. He said he never had a strong opinion on the old mascot.

He's just glad Milton's got a symbol in place that likely won't ever get stripped off the gym wall, regardless of who complains or what the legal process is for removing a school nickname.

"It's the city's Red Hawks, now. Two words, not one," Hammil said. "That's the way we should leave it with them."



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