Insensitive depictions of Native Americans are demeaning and further negative views that help lead to violence against indigenous people, advocates said.
After gaining support for a resolution against the use of race-based school mascots in 2019 that garnered statewide attention and a subsequent measure condemning violence and murders against indigenous women, then-Wausau School Board President Tricia Zunker figured racist attitudes toward her Native American people were improving.
But Zunker, a Supreme Court justice in the Ho-Chunk Nation, said a recent incident involving a Wausau West High School teacher dressing in stereotypical Native American attire for a history class lesson, shows that isn’t necessarily the case.
“I was shocked. I was disappointed. I was horrified,” Zunker told UpNorthNews Tuesday, one day after she and other advocates put on a press conference to address the incident and then spoke to the Wausau School Board about their concerns.
“This shouldn’t be happening at any school,” she said. “I was confused [about] how we could approve these actions at the board level, and then somehow that didn’t translate to the classroom.”
The district issued a statement apologizing to parents and students, calling the teacher’s wearing of a stereotypical costume “a huge mistake.” The district said it is reviewing its curriculum and delivery “to ensure it is respectful to all cultures and heritages.”
The teacher’s donning of a Native American costume came to light last week after a Native American student in the class recorded the act. The student shared the image of a teacher with braids and a headband with his father, Biskakone Greg Johnson, who then shared it on a Facebook post.
During his address to the Wausau School Board, Johnson acknowledged that his son told him about the incident. He described how he was shot at last year while spearfishing in Vilas County After viewing the image of the teacher wearing stereotypical attire, he said he fears for his son facing gunfire simply for being Native American.
“The guy who shot at me obviously wasn’t educated about us,” Johnson said.
Speakers at the press conference condemned the teacher’s stereotyping of Native Americans and said such actions, whether intentional or not, serve to demean others’ perception of them. In fact, such negative imagery can lead to acts of violence against Native Americans, especially of women, said Alysse Arce, a member of the Menominee Tribe and a Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women advocate.
Indigenous women are murdered 10 times more frequently than the national average, and most face violence at some point during their lives.
Continued negative stereotypes of Native Americans “have created a world in which Indigeneous people are dehumanized,” Arce said. “We are made into mascots.”
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The issue is occurring in Wisconsin too. In recognition, cities across the state last year designated May 5 as a day of awareness for missing and murdered Indigenous women. Wisconsin Attorney General Josh Kaul has formed a task force to make inroads on the issue. And this week, End Domestic Abuse Wisconsin released its annual homicide report that for the first time includes a focus on missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.
Still, the incident in Wausau schools is evidence that more must be done, Zunker and others said. They said school districts throughout Wisconsin must adopt state Department of Public Instruction (DPI) curriculum that teaches appropriately about Native American tribes, if racist views are to improve.
“Our goal is to challenge Wausau to improve its curriculum and develop a model program,” said Barbara Munson, a member of the Oneida Nation and chairwoman of the Indian Mascot and Logo Task Force in the Wisconsin Indian Education Association.
School district officials have not released the name of the teacher who wore the stereotypical outfit. Press conference organizers didn’t blame the educator, but focused instead on the need to correct systemic racism regarding Native Americans.
Better educating students about Native Americans will be key to altering existing racist views, said Zunker, who ran unsuccessfully for Congress against Tom Tiffany in 2020 and lost a re-election bid for the school board in April. She noted support for the teacher who donned Native American attire as evidence that change is needed. She called on Wausau district officials to work with tribal leaders and the DPI’s director of American Indian studies to improve its Indigenous studies curriculum.
“What’s the positive that can come out of this? Let’s make Wausau a district that can have a robust curriculum, one that teaches appropriately about Native Americans,” she said. “That is the way we are going to make a real difference.”