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More than a mascot: Prescott students contest Native-based mascots

A group of Prescott High School students have 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

Tensions around sports teams using Native-based mascots have been flaring for quite some time now.

Professional sports teams such as the Washington Redskins and the Cleveland Indians have faced much uproar due to their chosen names over the last decade, but the controversy has not received as much spotlight at the high school level.

Prescott High School students want to change that.

A group of Prescott students have organized what they call a "T-shirt protest" that aims to bring attention to Osceola Chieftains' and Baldwin-Woodville Blackhawks' team names. Students opposed to the two Middle Border Conference mascots wore the T-shirts that read "'INDIAN' LOGOS PROMOTE RACIAL DISCRIMINATION AND STEREOTYPING" to the Prescott girls basketball team's home game against BW on Jan. 5.

"The student council helped design a T-shirt and we wanted it to be really simple just so it's to the point and just words on a shirt, nothing more," Prescott senior Erik Zielinski said. "We don't have any loud chants, we're not being obnoxious or anything, it's just we have the shirts on and we're there."

"The idea is that the T-shirts would speak for themselves," Kieran Lapcinski explained.

Zielinkski said the group of students got the idea from a former Prescott student, Zach Simones, who brought light to the issue during his high school career.

"This year, we're seniors and we felt like, 'Alright, let's do something about it,' so we chose T-shirts," Zielinski said. "Throughout all of our high school careers, we've kind of become more educated about the topic."

Zielinksi and Lapcinski along with Alayna Seleski and Parker Hince have all taken Prescott's First Nations class taught by Jeff Ryan, which is a course offered to juniors and seniors that helps provide students with an understanding of "the historical, cultural, political and economic impact of Indian Nations on the state of Wisconsin and the entire United States," according to Ryan's syllabus.

"I took the First Nations class this year, and it just opened up a whole new door," Hince said. "I think it's really important what we're doing because we need to draw attention to the situation. Native people are less than 2 percent of the entire U.S. population so they don't get the attention they deserve."

"For me personally, I had taken a couple of trips to the Lac du Flambeau reservation, and I know people down there, and every person that I've heard talk about the issue said they don't like it," Zielinski said. "All 11 nationally recognized tribes in Wisconsin also are against the use of Native-based mascots, and the fact that over 30 schools in Wisconsin are still using them is insane. It gets me kind of fired up."

Seleski also has had the chance to visit the Lac du Flambeau reservation through her AP U.S. History class, and her experience influenced her similarly.

"During that time [at Lac du Flambeau] I talked to various different native people not just about the logo issue, but also about their lives, their ceremonies and their culture as a whole," Seleski said. "A lot of it I didn't know about or I wasn't aware of, but after talking to them I became interested in the issue. After hearing their opinions on it, I think it's hard to deny that it's something that shouldn't be happening."

Lapcinski said it's hard to watch how insensitive people can be regarding the mascot issue, which is why he wants to get involved with the protest any way he can.

"I think people don't know a lot about it, and that's a part of it — being uninformed," Lapcinski said. "But if it's opened up more and talked about I think there could be better change."

The students know that no immediate changes will 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."

Zielinki and Lapcinski, members of Prescott's student council, said their members voted 16-0 on the resolution to go through with the T-shirt protest and to reach out to Osceola and Baldwin-Woodville to talk about possible steps they could take to change their mascots.

With the 16-0 vote, a letter was sent to both schools' superintendents, principals and athletic directors. The letter alerted both schools that the Prescott students would be wearing their T-shirts at upcoming games, and asked the schools if they would be interested in opening up a dialogue to discuss how tribes feel about logo behavior.

"We're not trying to be vicious in any way," Lapcinski said. "We'd just love to talk with them, eventually. The whole essence is to be peaceful and understanding while also trying to get the point across that it is an issue for a reason."

Zielinski said that both Osceola and BW seemed as though they would potentially be open to a future dialogue, but that things were still up in the air.

Although the protest was supported by Prescott's student council, the students made it clear that their movement is only student-run and not affiliated with the school.

When asked how Prescott High School's faculty responded to the protest, all four students agreed that they received support.

"They were really supportive of it; they just want to make sure that we know that there's a lot of responsibility with what we're doing and we have to make sure that we go about it in the right way," Lapcinski said.

"The responsibility is to not create this into something that gets out of hand," Zielinski explained. "Like, you know, we don't want tensions to get high and people like yelling and screaming or committing violence. We knew that we could invoke a lot of powerful emotions from either side, and we want to make sure that we keep them tempered while still getting our message across."

After one protest, the students have not received any negative feedback about the movement they've organized, but they have heard opposing remarks about the issue in the past.

"Considering we've only done one protest so far, I personally haven't received any negative feedback about that protest, but I have had some people question my views on the topic," Seleski said. "I've explained to people my opinion and why I believe it the way I do, so I've gotten into some heated conversations, but they've never been ultimately negative. I haven't received any hate for lack of a better term."

"A personal favorite argument is, 'You could find something wrong about any mascot, just like how the Cardinals misrepresent the animal cardinal,'" Zielinski said. "I had that said to me."

Zielinksi said he's also heard the argument that Vikings and Spartans were groups of people, too, but said, "It's different when you're talking about a culture that's not around anymore. There are still Native American Indians. They are living and breathing. They aren't a thing of the past."

The Prescott students know their mission of phasing out Osceola and BW's mascots is in for a long journey, but they're happy to be a part of the movement no matter what comes out of their T-shirt protest.

The group plans on sporting their T-shirts again on Friday, Jan. 19 when Prescott boys basketball team hosts Baldwin-Woodville.

"Native people are not a relic of the past," Seleski said, "and it's really important that we recognize that Native logos are a race-based mascot."