Waunakee school officials sought feedback from members of the Ho-Chunk Nation (HCN) this week, regarding what the district should do with a mural that has hung inside its gym since the mid-1970s.
The mural was created by former students and depicts a stereotypical Plains Indian dressed in a loincloth and moccasins, wearing a feather in his hair and holding an axe in his right hand. The image has been hanging inside Waunakee High School’s old gymnasium since 1974.
Waunakee’s board of education was recently advised by its diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) committee to remove the 8-by-12 foot mural and replace it with a land acknowledgement. Board members considered the committee’s recommendation this spring, and after being unable to reach a consensus, referred the matter to its goals committee for further input and discussion.
The committee met earlier this week, to gather the thoughts of area tribal members as to whether the mural should be removed. Waunakee school district administrator Randy Guttenberg spoke at the committee’s Aug. 2 meeting, explaining how the debate had reached the point it’s at today.
Guttenberg noted that discussion around the mural existed prior to his arrival in the district.
“This is the start of my 14th year as superintendent in Waunakee, and the conversations around imagery and around the mural in the gym, those all predate me by quite a few years,” Guttenberg said. “And I thought one of the things we should do tonight is find out (directly) what the history of that is because it’s become a bit of an urban legend around the history of where that all arose from.”
Waunakee High School alum Terry Enge said he and his classmates created the mural in 1974 under the direction of their art instructor at the time. The school had just opened two years prior, and in the previous building, there was an image of an Indian chief wearing a headdress.
Enge and his classmates were asked to create a new image that could replace it.
Enge explained that he found the image of the man depicted in the mural inside a book, and after projecting it onto three pieces of plywood and painting it, added artistic touches to “make the Indian look cool.” A plaque was later added to the mural by former high-school principal Brian Kersten, stating that the Ho-Chunk people were the original inhabitants of the area.
“He added a lot of verbiage,” Enge said, “which I think led to the urban legend that we did a lot of research. But we did no research when we first drew this. I just went to a book, copied it and added things that are not historical at all. That’s the history of the Indian.”
Guttenberg thanked Enge for sharing the history of the mural, and asked tribal members in attendance for their thoughts about the mural and how the district should proceed.
Ho-Chunk member Tim Decorah, who teaches physical education at Waunakee High School, said he came to the district in 1995. Throughout his time teaching and coaching, Decorah said, he never heard any negative feedback about the mural or had students ask him about it.
Initially, he opposed the proposal to remove the mural. Decorah said he “had a change of heart” after speaking to tribal elders earlier this year.
“I made contact with some of my older folks in the Ho-Chunk Nation, particularly up in the Dells,” Decorah said. “All of them said, ‘I think it’s about time we move on,’ and we were talking mainly about the mural. So with some elders’ input, I had a change of heart, because it’s not about me. It’s about us, the Ho-Chunk Nation. So it’s a little bigger (than me).”
Josh Cash, a fellow WHS teacher and member of the Chippewa tribe, agreed.
“I personally feel it’s about time for that to come down,” said Cash, sharing a story about his recently graduated son as reason for why the mural should be removed. “He would be in phy-ed class or basketball practice, and he’d have kids or players say to him, ‘Is that your cousin or is that your uncle?’ It really didn’t bother him, but say there’s another student who it did. That’s not right. So I just feel and in talking to Tim…that it’s probably time for it to come down.”
Guttenberg asked the tribal members whether they had any recommendations as to what should replace the mural in the instance it were removed from the old high-school gymnasium.
HCN Tribal Historic Preservation Officer Bill Quackenbush suggested that the district reach out to the state’s 11 federally recognized tribes, and request a flag bearing their insignia.
“Each tribe has that, and in place of that mural, you could contact all the tribes and see if they could supply a flag,” Quackenbush said. “This gym should be surrounded by all kinds of culture if you’re really going to (pay tribute to area tribes).”
Committee members voted 2-0 to recommended removal of the mural, with treasurer Jack Heinemann absent from the Aug. 2 meeting. The recommendation will be considered by the full school board later this month.