By Shereen Siewert and Damakant Jayshi

A Wausau West teacher is under fire after donning Native American clothing in the classroom, a move critics are calling the Indigenous equivalent of “black face.”

The incident comes two years after the Wausau School Board led a statewide effort to retire Native American mascots and symbols. In 2019, the board unanimously passed a resolution that called the continued use of Native American mascots offensive and intolerable, an issue that “establishes an unwelcome, divisive and hostile learning environment for Native American students that affirms negative stereotypes that are promoted in mainstream society.”

Although all 11 federally recognized tribes in the state joined 18 school boards in support of the resolution ahead of the Wisconsin Association of School Boards’ annual convention in January 2020, the advocacy group voted against lobbying the Legislature for change. The vote was 218-101.

Wausau West teacher wearing Native American clothing in class. Source: Facebook post

A photo of the teacher was posted on Facebook by Greg Johnson, whose son was in the classroom. Johnson is a Native American artist and educator.

“Hey Wausau West High School, you were supposed to be a multicultural school,” his post reads. “You were supposed to be an upgrade for my children’s education. Guess what. You are just as bad as those schools down in Georgia back in the 1950’s! You picked the wrong children to dress up and play Indian in front of. My son witnessed some serious bullshit from his HISTORY teacher today.”

The district has not publicly identified the teacher, but issued a brief statement late Wednesday saying administrators are “reviewing a situation at one of our schools that is causing expressions of concern about cultural sensitivity.”

“The District is doing a thorough review of the concerns, as we always would,” said Coordinator of Communications & Marketing Diana White, in her official statement. “We are also talking with all the individuals involved to seek to understand the concerns.”

But psychologists, educators and experts in Native American cultural issues have long said such cultural concerns are well-documented, resulting in a growing effort nationwide to eliminate Native American themed mascots.

“As immediate past president of the Wausau School Board and as a Ho-Chunk woman, I am disappointed, shocked, and horrified to learn of this racist and discriminatory incident that occurred at Wausau West High School,” Tricia Zunker told Wausau Pilot & Review. “Schools are supposed to be safe learning environments, not a place where our students are forced to endure racism and discrimination. This portrayal furthers negative stereotypes and dehumanizes Native Americans. It is never good educational policy to stereotype against an entire race of people.”

Zunker referenced research showing that “use of race-based mascots, nicknames and imagery results in a detrimental effect on all students’ educational experiences; exacerbates cross-community conflict; and creates a hostile learning environment for Native students, which has lifelong consequences.

“My heart breaks for the Indigenous students who had to endure this harmful incident,” she said.

In 2005, the American Psychological Association called for the immediate retirement of Native American mascots because they undermine the educational experience of all students, both Native and non-Native. Further studies have reinforced that view, including a study published in June 2020 in the Race, Ethnicity and Education Journal. The study, by Laurel R. Davis-Delano, PhD, of Springfield College; Joseph P. Gone, Aaniiih-Gros Ventre, PhD, Harvard University; and Stephanie A. Fryberg, Tulalip, PhD, University of Michigan, describes findings from a comprehensive review of studies on the psychosocial effects of Native-themed mascots.

“Although most people in the U.S. do not perceive Native American mascots as problematic, all of the academic studies undertaken to study the psychosocial effects of these mascots demonstrate either direct negative effects on Native Americans or that these mascots activate, reflect, and/or reinforce stereotyping and prejudice among non-Native persons,” the researchers wrote.

The review described the negative psychological effects for Native students as, “in particular lower self-esteem, lower community worth, less capacity to generate achievement-related possible selves, and greater levels of negative effect.”

As for supporters’ claims such names are meant to honor Native Americans, the authors wrote, “there was no evidence from any study that Native American mascots foster positive or beneficial psychosocial effects for Native Americans.”

Efforts to clarify the circumstances surrounding the incident were not immediately successful and school officials have released no additional details.

Barbara Munson, Chair of Wisconsin Indian Education Association “Indian” Mascot and Logo Taskforce said in 2020 that she took it as a positive development that 101 school districts had voted to retire the race-based mascots and symbols. Munson, who lives in Mosinee, spoke about efforts to have the Mosinee School District retire their longtime “Indians” mascot symbol.

“We are teaching our them (students) to accept and tolerate race-based symbols,” said Munson, in an interview on Wisconsin Public Radio. “That is not what we want to be teaching in schools. Time has come to change. And once you know that what you are doing is harmful, then change it.”

Speaking to Wausau Pilot & Review, Munson said it is inappropriate for any non-Indian person to go into the classroom in Indian costume.

“It is really disturbing as it does relate to the Indian mascot issue,” she said. “People need to be aware of stereotyping. How is it good education policy to encourage students in stereotyping people?”

She added that educators can use clothes on hangers or models if they have the expertise to do that to teach about the history and culture of Native Americans.

Munson welcomed the school administration’s announcement that the incident is being reviewed.

“That is a good first step,” she said, adding that the Wausau School District could partner with WIEA and other Indian associations to improve their curriculum. “This can be a start of an exemplary program at Wausau district.”