Contact Zone: A Community Battle

Let me begin by answering the question of who I am. I grew up in a very cultural household. My mother was Irish-Czechoslovakian, my father was fourth generation Native American. Everyone in the house was very interested in our Lakota background and when each of us children were born we were given Native American names (a tradition my father continued with each of our children when they were born). Our living room, bathroom, the stairs to our basement, and the basement itself were all decorated with artifacts: dream catchers, paintings, Maya plates, and more.

I grew up in Milton, Wisconsin, a very white, German-based population. There was some controversy in the high school right around the time my older brother (by six years) was a freshman. A woman named Carol Hand found the high school mascot offensive. Back then, in the 1990’s, the school name was Milton Redmen and the mascot was a hide-wearing Native American doing a war dance while holding a tomahawk up in one hand. Not only did Carol not have any children in the school district, but she claimed that the community harassed her; something my family never experienced in the twelve years we lived there openly as Native Americans.

Feeling that he could make a difference and give the School Board a unique perspective on the matter, my father fought against Carol Hand, insisting that the mascot was not in the least bit offensive to those of Native American heritage. The mascot was simply a representation of Native American culture, something that was considered traditional and seen as a matter of pride amongst individual tribes. This fight went on for a full year and it wasn’t until my older sister (by five years) was a freshman that Carol Hand finally had her way. The mascot was changed to a simple Native American chief headdress.

Having had her victory over the mascot Carol Hand decided to take matters one step further and started going after the school name itself, along with the new mascot. Again my family stood up against her to keep things as they were. We were not alone in this either. Several other members of the community stood beside us while my father argued the overly sensitive insensitivity of people like Carol. He fought Carol and some of the members of the school board for eight years, standing his ground while all three of his own children moved their way through the school district. It wasn’t until the summer after my graduation in 1998 (and his subsequent stepping down on the issue since his children were all graduates) that the School Board brought the matter to a vote and Milton High School went from being the Milton Redmen to the Milton RedHawks. I was part of the last graduating class of Redmen and I am to this day proud to be such, along with all of my friends during my four years there.

As Pratt states in her essay about the Arts of the Contact Zone “autoethnographic works are often addressed to both metropolitan audiences and the speaker’s own community” (488). This is seen both on the level of what happened in the Milton School District, and on a national level. Colleges, schools, athletic teams, have all been challenged by what my father called overly sensitive insensitivity on this same subject of Native American names and mascots. In this case, Carol Hand tried taking her issue beyond the school board to the State of Wisconsin itself. However, the State determined that this was a matter for the local community to decide.

In the end, the summer that the vote was finally made to make the change, according to several members of the community the School Board ignored the proposed referendum and cast their votes independently. The result is what Pratt claims is a “failure to produce an orderly, coherent exchange” where the members of the community felt that their voices were no longer being heard despite the fact that “all participants are engaged in the same game and that the game is the same for all players” (494).

This exchange, the eight year long debate over the matter of the mascot and name, is a wonderful example of the “contact zone” (487). According to Pratt, a contact zone is a “term to refer to social spaces where cultures meet, clash, and grapple with each other, often in contexts of highly asymmetrical relations of power” (487). In this case one woman brought together this concept of clashing cultures and offensive materials. The School Board in the end became the top of the asymmetrical heap, using their power to bypass the wishes of the community to achieve their own desired results.

This issue of community is what Pratt calls “imagined” (493). It is both “limited, by finite, if elastic, boundaries” as well as a “fraternal, a deep, horizontal comradeship” (493). The issue was posed due to the limited nature of the topic and the sensitivity it caused with certain members of the community. On the other hand, it is also made fraternal by those who stood beside each other to fight for what they felt and believed as one, gaining a better understanding of each other and a stronger sense of community. Just as Pratt states in her essay, “along with rage, incomprehension, and pain there were exhilarating moments of wonder and revelation . . . The sufferings and revelations were, at different moments to be sure, experienced by every student” (497). The experience opened my eyes to the concept of what my father called bleeding-heart liberals, people who took offense in the slightest things. I, like everyone else involved, had to learn to adapt to this concept and grow with it. I learned to have a better understanding of transculturation and the overly sensitive insensitivity it could cause. The entire experience left me changed for the better; more open to and understanding of the world around me.

To this day that battle over the name and mascot stand out to me as a strong point of understanding of community and culture. It still saddens me, and I will always be proud to be part of the last graduating class of Milton Redmen.

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