Man who was face of Marquette Warriors sounds off on mascot debate

MILWAUKEE (WITI) -- Are Indian mascots used by schools and sports teams symbols of dignity or discrimination? It's a question being debated across the country and in southeastern Wisconsin -- and one man has a unique perspective on Wisconsin's "Brave New Law."

As a Marquette University student in 1979, Mark Denning arrived on campus as the school was moving toward a more dignified sports symbol, and away from the cartoonish "Willie Wampum" warrior mascot.

"A huge paper mache head and a tiny little feather on top. He had a tomahawk. People were proud of that native image, but what was that image really?" Denning said.

It was a question facing a university striving to be more sensitive. Denning was approached by school officials with an idea.

"What if we use an actual American-Indian person to represent Marquette University?" Denning recalls.

Eventually, Denning portrayed "the warrior" at Marquette University basketball games in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Then, it went a step further.

"The face on the Marquette logo from the 1980s is my face. I bought into that, so much so that I signed my likeness away, so Marquette University could use my likeness on the Marquette Warriors logo in the 1980s," Denning said.

It seemed to be a great compromise -- no caricatures, no offensive symbols -- just Denning's face.

"I was that guy.  I was the logo. I believed in it so much," Denning said.

Denning says his perspective changed one day as he was standing in line at the University Book Store.

"I was just standing in line and I saw my face on these drawers. Multiple faces -- on underwear. Just shaking my head. What's going on? Because that's my face, and now people are using it for underwear," Denning said.

Suddenly for Denning, the Indian logo debate was crystallized in a question: Were these logos about having fun, or about making fun?

"It really kind of hit me that people are using us for fun. People are using us for entertainment.  We're not any more than that right now," Denning said.

As a national debate over the issue rages, with controversy swirling around the NFL's Redskins, a fierce fight exploded in the Wisconsin Legislature.

It centers on the Mukwonago Area School District, which has refused to change its "Indians" name despite a state law and court ruling.

The Indian name and logo, in full headdress, is still splashed across the stands and the school's signage.

Current Wisconsin law makes it easy for citizens to challenge Indian mascots and have them removed, but controversial bills, passed through both the state Senate and the Assembly would change that, making it easier for schools to keep their mascots -- even over the objections of Native Americans.

"Where do we stop?" Rep. Steve Nass (R - Whitewater) said.

Nass authored the bill. He says the state should not legislate matters of taste.

"Can something be offensive?  Sure.  Does that mean it's discrimination?  No.  It doesn't," Nass said.

"Indians forever. It just kind of gives you a little reality of what it means to Mukwonago to lose this logo," a Mukwonago Indians supporter said.

"You don't get that at a high school football game.  What you get is a lot of people cheering for these Indians or against people pretending to be Indians," Denning said.

Denning says it's not pretend. It's personal. The man whose face was the kind of logo he's not fighting against says the debate is about recognizing and reclaiming the power of images.

"All they'll do, like at Mukwonago, is wear a shirt.  Children will wear a shirt that will say 'always an Indian.'  What does that mean?  I have a letter jacket that I got at Goodwill for $12.99, and for $12.99 I can take Indian on and off my shoulders at any time, but I can't take Indian out of my life at any time.  That's what I am. That's what I was born as, and that's who I'll be," Denning said.

The bill that would make it easier for schools to keep their Indian mascots is now on the desk of Gov. Scott Walker, who has not yet said whether he will sign it.