Damakant Jayshi

Two days after the Wausau School District released a statement regarding a ‘culturally sensitive’ issue under review, West’s principal issued a formal apology calling the incident a “huge mistake.”

Controversy erupted after a Wausau West history teacher donned a Native American costume in the classroom, part of a cultural history lesson that led to sharp criticism.

“Students, we would like to recognize a huge mistake we made during our last large group, ‘Who Discovered America’?” West Principal Jeb Steckbauer said, in a release issued by the district on Friday evening. “In our attempt to create a fun learning environment, we failed to recognize the disrespect we showed the culture and heritage of the people we portrayed. The manner in which we presented the lesson perpetuated stereotypes that we actually stand against. Though we strive to honor the sovereignty and unique culture of each Native American tribe, we did not achieve this.”

Native American leaders and critics call such portrayal the Indigenous equivalent of “black face.”

“We sincerely apologize to each of you, and are grateful so many of you had the courage to speak up,” Steckbauer wrote.

The press release, issued by coordinator of Communications and Marketing Diana White, does not specifically name the teacher who wore Native American clothing in class. On Wednesday, a photo of the teacher was posted on Facebook by Greg Johnson, whose son was in the classroom. Johnson is an Ojibwe artist and instructor.

“Hey Wausau West High School, you were supposed to be a multicultural school,” Johnson’s 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.”

In his statement, Steckbauer noted the intense criticism the incident received. Johnson’s Facebook post received over 130 comments, almost all of which criticized the teacher’s conduct. Comments on social media posts from news sites were mixed.

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.”

Barbara Munson, Chair of Wisconsin Indian Education Association “Indian” Mascot and Logo Taskforce, said it is inappropriate for any non-Native American person to go into the classroom in Indian costume.

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

Munson, who welcomed the school administration’s announcement of reviewing the incident, also made the suggestion that the district should improve its curriculum. In his statement, Steckbauer vowed to do just that.

“We are doing a thorough review of our curriculum and its delivery to ensure it’s sensitive and inclusive,” Steckbauer said, asking for suggestions or feedback from students and parents.

“Going forward, we, along with other members of our school and district, including Mr. Steckbauer, are helping us work through our lessons to be certain we move forward in a more sensitive and inclusive manner,” the release said. “You can expect to see positive changes in future lessons.”