The Midgets? Really?
Updated: May 28
By Carlo Kumpula (October, 2020)
We live in sensitive times. With the events of 2020 helping to further divide an already divided nation, many sports mascots have come under fire. In the wake of the Washington Redskins kerfuffle, complaints again arose about the Kansas City Chiefs, Atlanta Braves, and Cleveland Indians. Along with those came renewed criticism of numerous high school mascots.
Complaints about race-based mascots are nothing new. Over the past few decades in Wisconsin we've seen the Milton Redmen become the Redhawks, the Kewaunee Indians become the Storm, the Menomonie Indians become the Mustangs, and the Osseo-Fairchild Chieftains become the Thunder. In other cases, schools have removed Native-American imagery from their logos. An example would be Warriors. By just using the word Warriors, with no additional imagery; the term might refer to ancient Greek Warriors, Roman Warriors, or even the American military's "Wounded Warriors." The mascot thus becomes a bit more ambiguous and, perhaps, more socially acceptable.
That brings us to the Butternut Midgets, which some might question as to why they're included in my book. Rest assured, it was a difficult decision; one that I didn't take lightly. I discussed the issue with several teacher colleagues from around the state, all of whom agreed with my rationale.
First and foremost is the fact of historical context. Going to high school in Mellen I competed against both the Butternut and Hurley Midgets. I was aware that the two mascots weren't quite the same. Hurley, as has been the story with most U.S. schools using the mascot, adopted the name from an undersized athletic team; in this case, football. According to an April 4, 2004 article in the Iron County Miner, the earliest mention was in the October 10, 1925 edition of the Iron County News after a football game against Bessemer. It wasn't until 1930, though, that the school's yearbook referred to the football team as the Midgets.
As many readers already know, with no "back story" Hurley has recently become the Northstars. And, as with most communities that have undergone similar change, it wasn't an easy decision. The declaration, "Once a ------------, always a ---------!" is often heard among defenders of the original mascot when such changes occur.
Butternut, on the other hand, has the story of Charles "Midget" Fisher, the World Champion wrestler which provides historical context unique to this one school and community. According to Mascot DB.com, there were at least a dozen high school Midget mascots at one time. Seven have been changed due to either consolidation or public pressure, leaving one each in North Dakota, Iowa, Illinois, and Missouri along with Butternut. None of the other four, however, can match Butternut's historical context.
The other factor is the legal aspect. Through the 1990s and on into the current century, Wisconsin Statute 118.134 (referred to as Wisconsin's Indian Mascot Law by the Marquette Sports Law Review) has been debated, revised, debated, and revised again. Essentially, though, the focus of the law has not changed. It has specifically addressed race-based mascots, particularly those involving Native American names and images. The Hurley and Butternut mascots have rarely factored into the equation as they were not race-based. And, while groups such as the Little People of America have challenged all of the remaining "Midget" mascots in the U.S., Butternut's story of Charles Fischer has endured.
On January 23, 2019 Andrew Kirov of FOX21 out of Duluth-Superior did an excellent story on Hurley & Butternut. If interested, you can find it here: https://www.fox21online.com/2019/01/23/hurley-moves-on-from-midgets-mascot-butternut-keeping-nickname/