The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A high school in North Dakota calls its teams the ‘Midgets.’ Activists want that changed.

A Dickinson High bus bearing the teams' nickname and mascot is seen in North Dakota. (Samantha Rayburn-Trubyk)

Samantha Rayburn-Trubyk drove seven hours from her Winnipeg home to the southwest corner of North Dakota this week, bringing a message: It is long past time for Dickinson High’s nickname to join other relics of the “freak show era.”

Dickinson’s sports teams are still known as the “Midgets,” and advocates such as Rayburn-Trubyk are asking for that name to be replaced.

“The bottom line is that this word is offensive to Little People, and the [Little People of America] has been very clear on this point,” Rayburn-Trubyk said in a telephone interview. “There are infinite possibilities of what to name a team that do not encroach on being disrespectful to a group of people, and there are only a handful of schools left in the country who are clinging to this mascot. Time is long overdue for a change, and there is absolutely zero good defense for keeping this archaic, overdue term alive in public schools.”

That’s the message she delivered to the Dickinson school board during a meeting Monday, telling the board that the term Midgets “has a lot of hate,” the Dickinson Press reported.

At a high school of immigrants just outside Washington, soccer is a break from hectic reality

“I want to make it clear: We’re not here to come and force you to change. We’re not trying to force anything upon you,” Rayburn-Trubyk, president of Little People of Manitoba, said at Monday’s meeting. “We just really want to give you our perspective and our point of view. You can make the decision on your own.”

The term has come under increasing scrutiny in recent years, whether used as a team nickname or in other contexts. Last month, Hockey Canada decided to change its age group names, including the “midgets.”

“We believe everyone should feel welcome in the game, and in our ongoing effort to make hockey more inclusive, the members at the Hockey Canada annual meeting determined that the names of our age divisions will change,” Michael Brind’Amour, chair of Hockey Canada’s board of directors, said in a statement.

The group also changed the “novice,” “peewee,” “atom” and “bantam” groups to clearer, more precise names that specify players’ ages, from under-7 to U21. Those changes will go into effect for the 2020-21 season.

The Canadian Lacrosse Association followed suit last week, replacing division names such as “midget” with number-based classifications, with the president of Little People of Canada calling the decision “a win-win-win.” Other Canadian groups, including BC Hockey and Ontario Basketball, had previously revised the names of their classifications, moves that were also cheered by advocates.

The Agriculture Department in 2015 stopped referring to some small raisins as “midgets” after a request from the Little People of America. And in July, a school board in Wisconsin chose to replace its “Midgets” nickname with the “Northstars.” A recent graduate who served on the committee to pick a new name told Wisconsin Public Radio that “a lot of the kids I talked to understood that it was time for a change and were on board to find a better mascot name.”

Rayburn-Trubyk, who, like her teenage son, has achondroplasia, spoke to the Dickinson board as a representative of Little People of America. One of her goals in visiting that community, which has a population of around 23,000, was to explain the word’s painful history dating from the 1800s and the legacy of circuses and expositions.

Rayburn-Trubyk attempted to deliver her message gently, saying that with advocacy, “you want to come in from a standpoint of positive intent,” and quoting Maya Angelou (“when you know better, you do better”).

A decade ago, these girls weren’t allowed to play lacrosse. Now they inspire a reservation.

“As we round the corner on 2019, every school must commit some portion of their curriculum to teaching diversity, inclusion and tolerance in their classrooms,” she said. “And the point we were making is we were curious how schools maintain their credibility when on one hand they educate their students about treating everyone equally and then on the other hand they support the use of a divisive, discriminatory word [etched] right on the gymnasium floor.

“Consider, for a moment, if you were a little person attending high school and you were being bullied with the term ‘Midget.’ Would you feel like your concerns could possibly be taken seriously by the administration or by the folks that you should be able to trust if they support using the very same word in their athletics program? School is supposed to be a safe place for kids.”

Dickinson started using the name in the mid-1900s, according to the Bismarck Tribune, and attempted in 1996 to change it, according to the Press. The school board voted then for a change, but residents, angered by the lack of discussion on the matter, held a recall election and at least three board members were recalled.

“I understand that people are desperately clinging to what they have known in the past, but the mascot is not appropriate,″ Diane Melbye, one of those board members recalled, told the Associated Press at the time.

In 2010, Dean Rummel, then the head of the school board, put the topic up for discussion, but there was no movement. He thinks, though, that might have changed, he told the local newspaper.

“When you see the University of North Dakota [go 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 told the Press.

Rummel urged the current school board to initiate a community conversation and solicit input from as many people as possible.

“For whatever reason, the mascot is kind of near and dear to some people’s hearts,” he told the Press. “I don’t understand that, but I certainly can respect that … [but] it’s long overdue for a change. I think it’s time.”

As for Rayburn-Trubyk, she said she has a visceral reaction to seeing caricatures of little people, such as the image used by Dickinson.

“That’s me? That’s supposed to be me, right? It’s just so horribly offensive, just public mocking of someone with skeletal dysplasia, somebody with a disability,” she said. “As I understand it, talking with some of the board members, when they go to tournaments outside their community, they often can’t even use the word because they’re embarrassed.”

In Dickinson, she found that “community members were reasonable, friendly and receptive, so I have hopes that it will change. They were met with a lot of resentment [when change was considered] in the past, but I do believe that times change, perspectives change, and I think this is now the right time.”

Dickinson’s board took no action Monday but is seeking more community discussion.

Read more sports coverage from The Post:

They grew up rooting for the Redskins. Now, they’re cheering for the Ravens.

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman launches initiatives in response to coaching abuse allegations

Olympic gold medalist Claressa Shields battles for more titles and exposure for women’s boxing

An Overwatch grandmaster at 16, elite gamer will weigh college offers against turning pro