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Top 10: Prescott students spotlight mascot controversy

A group of Prescott High School students started a student-run T-shirt protest that aims to bring awareness to the issue of high schools using Native-based mascots. The students held their first T-shirt protest on Friday, Jan. 5 at the Cardinals girls basketball team's home game against the Baldwin-Woodville Blackhawks. Photo courtesy of Erik Zielinski

Editor's note: This story is part of a series looking back at some of the biggest stories of 2018. Find the rest of the series here: Top Ten 2018.

While most high school student councils dedicate their time to planning school dances and homecoming events, Prescott's student council went above and beyond the standard agenda by bringing awareness to a cause that carries more weight than picking out a homecoming theme: the elimination of Native-based mascots.

"Native people are not a relic of the past," former Prescott High School student Alayna Seleski said in January 2018, "and it's really important that we recognize that Native logos are a race-based mascot."

Inspired by Prescott High School alumnus Zach Simones, 2018 graduates and student council members Erik Zielinski and Kieran Lapcinski, Seleski and many other Prescott students began a T-shirt protest, which they carried out during Prescott's home basketball games against the Osceola Chieftains and Baldwin-Woodville Blackhawks. The T-shirts read "'INDIAN' LOGOS PROMOTE RACIAL DISCRIMINATION AND STEREOTYPING" and were worn by Prescott students and community supporters who hoped that their recognition of the issue would force Osceola and Baldwin-Woodville to reconsider their school districts' Native-based mascots.

"I think people don't know a lot about it, and that's a part of it — being uninformed," Lapcinski said in January 2018. "But if it's opened up more and talked about I think there could be better change." The students knew that no immediate changes would come because of their protest. "That's unrealistic," Zielinski said. "We aren't trying to say that they need to find a different mascot right away. We want to open up a dialogue to understand the issue a little bit more and maybe take steps to start phasing [the mascots] out." The Prescott students sent letters to both Middle Border Conference school districts alerting them that they would be wearing their T-shirts to all Chieftain and Blackhawk games in Prescott, and they also shared their interest in opening up a dialogue to discuss how tribes feel about logo behavior.

The Herald reached out to Osceola and B-W's superintendents in January for their comments on their districts' mascots being challenged. "The name and logo of the Osceola Chieftains is well respected in our community and honors the legacy and honor of Chief Osceola," Osceola Superintendent Mark Luebker told the Herald. "The Osceola School District does not use a 'race-based' mascot." According to Luebker, the settlement of Osceola was named after Chief Osceola of the Seminole Tribe in the mid 1800's. "Chief Osceola led his warriors in the Second Seminole War ... Many towns and counties in various states are named after him as a symbol of respect and honor," Luebker said. Eric Russell, B-W's superintendent, told the Herald that he believes his district has eliminated all race-based mascots and logos in its schools. Russell said he hadn't spoken with the Prescott students, but that like Luebker, he had discussed the matter with Prescott's superintendent Dr. Rick Spicuzza. "Where we left it is that the high school principals would talk and potentially arrange some sort of discussion, but we need to know what they're really after," Russell said, "because otherwise, what's the point of the discussion? "We feel that we've eliminated everything [race-based]." The Prescott students were surprised by Luebker and Russell's responses to the protest and wished that the administrators would have connected with them directly, considering the T-shirt protest was not affiliated with Prescott's superintendent or school district.

"This is a student-driven protest. Administration is not involved," Seleski said. "I think it was kind of disheartening that they refused to have a dialogue with the people who are directly involved with the protest." "It's odd that they went and talked to people above us and didn't even bother addressing us," Lapcinski said. Though they were unable to organize a student dialogue with Osceola and B-W students before their graduation in May 2018, the Prescott students did leave their high school with support from members of the Lac Du Flambeau Tribal Community.

"When I first heard of this first initial protest, I was very impressed," President of Torchlight Consulting, LLC Brandon Thoms said on Feb. 15, while wearing a protest T-shirt at a Prescott girls' basketball game. "The second thing I thought of was flat-out courage. It takes a certain level of courage and fortitude to put yourself out on an island to stand up for something you believe in. It's a good feeling to see that there are people other than Indian people who recognize that this is an issue and they're willing to speak on it."

In November, current student council president Cody Rohl attended the National High School Journalism Convention where he represented the Wisconsin Indian Education Association's Indian Mascot and Logo Task Force and shared the work Prescott students have done to raise awareness about the logo topic in Wisconsin to young high school journalists. The convention was attended by 6,000 people who were primarily high school journalists.

"Students in high school are the most open to change," Rohl said. "Adults kind of have the idea of 'It's been that way since I was 2 years old.' Students are open to change and new ideas, so that's who we want to deal with."

Prescott students did not wear the protest T-shirts at the Cardinals' Dec. 14 home boys' basketball game against Osceola, but the current members of the school's student council are still hoping to speak directly with Osceola and B-W's student councils about their mascots and logos in the near future.

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