Symbols Fall, But Need for Education Persists

The “Red Raiders” team name will soon be gone from Central High School but the need for deeper education on Indigenous history and sovereignty, including accurate portrayals of indigenous people, remains.

That was the message from one Indigenous parent of a Central student who applauded the decision by school officials to change the team name but said it represented no more than a long-overdue step in the right direction. The parent asked to remain anonymous due to previous threats of violence against Indigenous people in the local area.

Act 31, which was passed in Wisconsin in 1989, requires that all students in Wisconsin learn about the history, culture, and tribal sovereignty of Wisconsin’s federally recognized tribes. Without that education, symbols and names like the Red Raiders do even more harm, the parent said, both by damaging the self-esteem of Indigenous students and by creating false stereotypes.

“I’ve approached teachers and asked and most of them don’t know Act 31 and don’t know how to teach about Indigenous people and there’s a ton of resources, they just aren’t using them,” the parent said of La Crosse schools.

Central Principal Troy McDonald announced on Monday that the Red Raiders team name and mascot would be retired. A new name and mascot will be presented to the school board in January that will “be consistent with the belief that Central is a safe and welcoming place for all,” a statement from the district said. The decision provoked anger from some, including La Crosse Common Council member Gary Padesky.

“The color red is not owned by the Native Americans,” he said. “In my opinion, it has nothing do with Native Americans, it’s just BS.”

Padesky said that, like the removal of the Hiawatha Statue earlier this year, the decision to scrap the Red Raiders name was political and in his opinion driven by the school board. McDonald “is taking the sword for it,” Padesky added. But the Indigenous parent told the La Crosse Independent the issue is more complicated than Padesky’s depiction. 

“The term ‘red’ or ‘redskins’ goes back to scalping and the blood when you scalp somebody and so we were called ‘redskins’ and just that terminology itself is offensive,” the parent said.

Some local Indigenous families may have no problem with the Red Raiders name, they added but, as a whole, Indigenous people have spoken out against the harm such names and mascots cause.

“You don’t tell someone what honors them,” the parent said. “Every Native nation in Wisconsin has spoken out and actually over 500 throughout the U.S. have spoken out against using mascots and using Indigenous names.”

The Red Raiders mascot was a caricature of an Indigenous warrior until the mid-1990s when it was changed to a knight. There’s still memorabilia connected to the old mascot at Central that should be removed, the parent said. But changing the team name is a positive step, they added. 

Indigenous people form less than 1% of the U.S. population, the parent noted, in part because so many were killed by European settlers. This means when they want to speak out, their voices are not always heard by the broader population. For that reason, it’s important that allies continue to amplify Indigenous opinions, the parent said. They thanked local allies who have worked on the removal of the Hiawatha statue and the Red Raider name, and the 2019 decision to celebrate Indigenous Peoples Day in La Crosse, instead of Columbus Day. They also thanked all Indigenous people who have been fighting for the right to exist since 1492.

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