Would changing Midgets mascot be too politically correct? A history of the name-change controversy

Stock photo. (Kayla Henson / The Dickinson Press)

Depending on who you ask, Dickinson High School's mascot — the Midgets — could be considered an endearing tradition or derogatory slur.

Dickinson High School is one of only five schools to still use the midget mascot, according to the Little People of America.

Residents of Dickinson and their school board members have discussed changing the name before — and are about to do so again.


On Dec. 17, 1996, the Associated Press ran a headline about Dickinson High School: 'Politically correct school board ousted for dumping Midget mascot.'

As the article reports, after the school board voted to change the school mascot, residents were angered enough to hold a recall election in November of the same year. At least three of the board members were recalled, one of which was Diane Melbye.


"I understand that people are desperately clinging to what they have known in the past, but the mascot is not appropriate,″ she said at the time.

Today, Melbye said that she thinks the name change was initially suggested by then Superintendent Buck Haas.

"He felt that it was potentially offensive, coaches didn’t appear to like that name at the time, that it was offensive to smaller people and objectionable," she said.

Opponents of the change were outraged at the lack of community input in changing the name.

A force behind the recall election, Morton Krieg, who was then elected to the school board, said then of the decision: "It was 70-plus years of tradition that was taken away from us in 15 minutes at a board meeting."


In 2010, then Dickinson Public Schools School Board President Dean Rummel spoke to the Little People of America via phone about their desire for the school board to revisit the issue. He received a letter from a former student supporting the change. Rummel put the topic up for discussion.

"They felt that not enough had changed to bring that back up and take that to a vote again," he said. "There wasn't enough support to make that change or to initiate a study as to what could be done."

At the time, Krieg was still on the school board.


"I feel at this time there is no great public outcry, no great student outcry, and certainly no administrative recommendations to act on the Midget name or mascot,'' Krieg said at the time.

Rummel said he thinks times have changed.

"When you see the University of North Dakota (which changed from Fighting Sioux to Fighting Hawks) and other mascots around the country having to change, I think it would be probably long overdue to take a look at this one and … try and initiate a change," he said.

For the current school board, he has some words of caution.

"I would initiate the process and follow what the University of North Dakota did … The thing I would caution against is to just bring it up at a school board meeting and vote to change it without input from all of the constituents out there. I would try to obtain as much input as I can, move slowly, and involve as many people as you can," he said.

He continued, "For whatever reason, the mascot is kind of near and dear to some people’s hearts. I don’t understand that, but I certainly can respect that ... (but) it’s long overdue for a change. I think it’s time."


Twenty-three years after it was first discussed, the mascot remains and a different Dickinson School Board will hear from the Little People of America about changing it.

During its next school board meeting on Monday, Dec. 9, at 5 p.m. in the Professional Learning Lab, the Dickinson Public School Board will hear from Daren Stenvold, Jon North and Samantha Rayburn, representatives of the Little People of America.


Until Stenvold's 6-year old son was born, he had never known a little person.

"One of the reasons I like going along is I’m just a father of (a little person)," he said. "Then they look and say, ‘You know what, if I was a dad and finding out that’s just demeaning to your son, you’re going to speak up about it.’ Then I think it’s understandable."

Stenvold is from Minot, N.D. He thinks his background might help people understand the issue.

"(North Dakota) is my home. Any Stenvold that you look up, they’re going to be related to me … It is my home state. It’s where all my family’s at. I go there at least two times a year. I think that will help with connecting because it is my backyard," he said.

Stenvold said he understands why some people may think changing the name is about being politically correct.

"To be straight up, I’m a Trump supporter, so I’m not one of that other side that feels that it is about feelings, and I don’t believe in that," he said. "I don’t believe in safe spaces. I don’t believe in any of that stuff . . . You have to have prayer rooms now. You have to have safe spaces now in these bigger corporations, and they just don’t get it. Why do you have to appease everybody? Because there are a lot of these crazy, far-out things, they assume that’s what this is . . . I think it’s just getting thrown in that bucket because of lack of knowledge."

He sees it differently.

"I do believe (that) looking someone in the face and calling them a name is a horrible thing to do. That’s really what using a degrading name is," he said.

The Little People of America issued a statement in 2015 in which it described the origin of the word midget as a way to refer to people of short stature who were on public display for curiosity and sport. Stenvold mentioned the evolution of the word over time and that what was once seen as at least somewhat acceptable is now considered a derogatory slur. The LPA organization itself used to be called Midgets of America.

"You see some black and white videos, and you watch what they thought was humor, and you just cringe like ‘Oh my God! They actually said that stuff back then?’ You’re not feeling soft about it. You just realize that some things change. We’re not going to go ride a horse down the street today and park it outside Walmart; we drive cars now. . . . Some things just change, and we understand things differently. It’s not about just being overly sensitive; it’s about just treating everybody as a person."

Stenvold has been involved in these discussions with school boards before, including the one in Hurley, Wis., which was the most recent school to drop the mascot.

"When it’s all said and done, there’s so much relief," he said. "There’s supposed to be some type of pride that people have in their old mascot, but they don’t realize that their new mascot, they still get to have the same pride. . . . What I know has always happened, and speaking to some people in Dickinson already, they’re already embarrassed of the mascot. They’re not as proud as they should be of a (mascot) that you can freely speak about."

Current school board President Brent Seaks understands that the topic is controversial, and he hopes this time around, things will be different.

"People have different opinions. Some people love the mascot; some don’t like it one bit," he said. "We’re all neighbors. We all live together in this community, and I think it’s important to be respectful of other people’s opinions, whatever those are. My hope this time there’s some healthy, good discussion about it."

As with all school board meetings, Monday's meeting will be open to the public. The agenda can be found here .

Managing Editor James B. Miller, Jr. contributed to this article.

Kayla Henson is a former Dickinson Press reporter.
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