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District will defend use of "Chief" nickname

May 12, 2010 | 08:41 AM
Walworth — If challenged, Big Foot High School won't give up the use of its nickname, "The Chiefs," without a fight.

With a new state law about to take effect, the district may find itself defending the use of its name and nickname to the state superintendent.

Gov. Jim Doyle recently signed a bill into law that will allow someone to file a formal complaint against the use of a Native American mascot or name. The state superintendent will then host a public hearing and will determine whether the use is offensive.

The school is named after Chief Big Foot, who is the last Potawatomi Indian chief to live on the shores of Geneva Lake.

The Indian Mascot and Logo Task Force identified 36 schools, including Big Foot, that uses Native American based nicknames.

"Certainly, if complaints are filed, I believe the district is prepared to defend the naming of the school," Big Foot Principal Mike Hinske said. "We want to honor the legacy of the settlement and the area."

School Board President Sue Pruessing believes the district would be able to make a good case while defending the name.

"I hope it won't come up and if it does we will see it through. Hopefully, we will be victorious," she said. "This is all new territory, we certainly would go through with it and see what would happen at the hearing."

Hinske and Pruessing said the use of the name is not offensive. Instead, they said they believe it pays tribute to Chief Big Foot.

"We sit on Big Foot prairie," Pruessing said. "I've tried to listen to both sides. I see their side and understand where they are coming from, but in the year 2000 we made a conscious decision to redesign the logo and items that would be considered disrespectful."

In 2000, the district abandoned the use of an Native American image for its academic and athletic logos.

For its athletic logo, the district uses an interlocking B and F. The school's academic logo is a scroll or script with a flame, Hinske said. The district also has a statue in the front of its building of Chief Big Foot.

The statue is based of an artistic rendering of what Chief Big Foot is believed to have looked like.

Past district challenges

The district has defended its nickname in the past and has faced challenges for its use.

In December 2005, then-Wisconsin School Superintendent Elizabeth Burmaster sent a letter to school districts, including Big Foot, asking them to reconsider their use of "Indian" mascots. The two superintendents of public schools before Burmaster, sent out similar letters.

"As you know, I believe that stereotypical American Indian logos do not support sound educational practice, because they interfere with a school's effort to provide accurate information related to the history, culture and tribal sovereignty of American Indian nations," Burmaster wrote in her letter.

In 2007, social studies teacher Marsha Ries asked the School Board to no longer use the artist rendering of Chief Big Foot for its yearbook.

"There are no pictures, drawings or portraits of Chief Big Foot. The face currently being used is a composite of what a Pottawatomie Native American from this area would have looked like in the 1800's," Ries wrote to the board in 2007. "No other ethnic group in our nation has to deal with having their ancestor's image on someone's chest or being used as a book decoration."

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