It’s now more than 150 years after the last remnants of Native Americans who had been living here prior to white settlement were removed from Winnebago County. And 17 years after a high school in the Winnebago County (named for the same tribe, which calls itself the Ho-Chunk) city where I now live eliminated the same nickname. It’s also an era of heightened discord and violence targeted at racial and ethnic minorities in which it is well-established that using human groups as mascots is damaging. It’s time for Forest City schools to choose a new nickname.
This is the right thing to do. It would also enhance the educational environment and help demonstrate that Forest City is a progressive place, where people from all backgrounds are welcome.
Recognizing some readers may question my credibility to make these claims since I live in another state or ask what the problem is since there may have been few local complaints in this regard, or argue the nickname honors Native Americans, tradition is important, or changing it would be too expensive, let me explain.
I write this as an alumnus of Forest City High School and Waldorf College who is proud to have grown up there and wants nothing but the best for the area. I also write this as a social scientist and educator who teaches and conducts research about related issues. From both positions, I feel compelled to share my thoughts and hope they are of value.
As noted, I’m proud to be from Forest City, a great place to be raised and come back to visit. I was pretty active in school in my day, even managing to earn letters in four sports, and didn’t think too much of the nickname on my jersey back then, three decades ago. It didn’t really come up and I certainly didn’t see it as an issue as a teenager. I understand the importance of tradition. I can also presume since it likely hasn’t directly affected many local people given the demographics of the area, it is still generally not seen as an issue; after all, a key idea in sociology is nothing is considered a problem until enough people with power say it is. In short, I think I understand why it is still in place.
I’m not pointing the fingers at any individual people in this regard. I also don’t believe anyone intends for the nickname to cause harm and recognize changes have been made over the years to downplay it, in terms of its associated imagery. I have to say, though, I don’t think this is good enough and I’m a bit embarrassed we’re still the Forest City Indians in this day and age.
This is partly because in my field, one of the first things that must be understood is the concept of sociological imagination, which I first learned from Julienne Friday at Waldorf and now have tried to teach to hundreds of college students of my own. In essence, this is the understanding that the social world is bigger than the individuals that comprise it and the structures we have created (such as “race” and “ethnicity” and how people are treated based upon the categories in which they find themselves) also have a major impact on people’s lives. Once the concept clicks, it’s hard to go back into the individualistic bubble through which we are generally taught to see the world. A consequence can be that one starts to believe if any group is facing injustice, it’s a problem for everyone.
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Back in 2005, the American Psychological Association (APA) passed a resolution recommending the retirement of American Indian mascots because research had revealed their damaging effects on both Native and non-Native people. Former APA president Ronald Levant, EdD, summarized the group’s rationale by noting, “schools are places of learning. These mascots are teaching stereotypical, misleading and too often, insulting images of American Indians. These negative lessons are not just affecting American Indian students; they are sending the wrong message to all students." Further, Lisa Thomas, PhD, one of the sub-committee members who drafted it explained that it was “a gesture to show that this kind of racism toward and the disrespect of, all people in our country and in the larger global context, will not be tolerated." More recent research, such as a 2017 article in the Journal of Consumer Psychology, has confirmed that such nicknames and mascots reinforce stereotypes, which is never positive, and resulting implicit bias can have lasting negative reverberations.
Here in Wisconsin, so close to Iowa geographically and culturally overall, there are some clear differences, such as the fact that Wisconsin has eleven federally recognized Indian tribes, while Iowa has one. Oshkosh, where I live, is named after the most famous chief of the Menominee Nation, the other main tribe (along with the Ho-Chunk) whose origin story is rooted in the region. Its high school teams have been called the Spartans and Wildcats for some time. Somewhat amazingly in a state where Native Americans are a relatively visible part of the social fabric, however, 31 of the 421 public school districts still use Native American mascots, symbols, images, logos, and/or nicknames. But maybe not for much longer, as a growing number of districts have signed a resolution similar to the APA’s. This includes Appleton, our neighbors to the north, which doesn’t feature any such mascots or nicknames but whose superintendent asserted in a recent newspaper story that “the resolution reinforces the district's basic commitment to dignity and respect for all.”
This is the right time to change Forest City schools’ nickname. It would be a proactive, progressive move, rather than one made in reaction to an incident or an external policy change. It would be the right thing to do, and I believe it would have very positive effects on the community. The discussion around this idea could be enlightening in a relatively homogeneous place with a wonderful climate for a person like me to learn and grow up, but which could be significantly more difficult for the small number of people of color or others who didn’t quite fit in for whatever reason. Sadly, this is part of life in most places, of course.
But a forward-looking community – and particularly its schools – should do everything in its power to ensure that everyone there feels welcome and included, and to teach its youth about difference, equity, and how to engage effectively with the global world of the 21st century, in a rapidly-diversifying nation that will have more non-white than white people by 2045, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. While it may be hard to see how the nickname of local sports teams is directly causing problems, it seems more difficult to justify retaining one that is outdated and lacking connection to positive local history, which may not only be offensive to some people and possibly signal to people considering a move to town that this place is behind the times, but also inadvertently reinforce stereotypes amongst the people already here.
Some old friends who still live in Forest City and have kids in its schools suggested simply not having a nickname. I have a feeling most local people would want one, though. If the inevitable resistance to this idea could be overcome, the process of creating a new nickname would likely be challenging, but would also give people an opportunity to gather, to discuss issues that matter in a constructive fashion and help put a different stamp on Forest City. I bet it would generate a lot of excitement and fun. While there would be costs involved with changing it, they would be more than offset by sales of all kinds of gear featuring the new nickname and the many other more important benefits, beyond dollars and cents, would accrue to the community.
I hope enough people in Forest City agree, such that there is new nickname we can all be proud of in the near future. My personal suggestion is the Forest City Pilots. Pilot Knob – the second-highest point in Iowa, surrounded by rolling, forested hills – is a thing of beauty and one this area’s most noteworthy features. As I understand it, the name comes from the knob being a landmark used for navigation across the region in earlier times. I like that metaphor and can envision some kind of tagline for the schools that accompanies the nickname, such as “Leading the Way to the Future”. In this regard, though, it doesn’t matter what I think, and I look forward to seeing what other people might come up with.
(Paul Van Auken is a 1991 graduate of Forest City High School and professor and chair of the Department of Sociology at the University of Wisconsin, Oshkosh)