Damakant Jayshi

Native American community members, leaders and allies on Monday called on the Wausau School District to make changes to their curriculum and hire a diversity and inclusion manager, after a Wausau West teacher dressed in a stereotypical Native American costume in class.

Speaking at a Monday news conference and to the Wausau School Board’s Education and Operations Committee, the group made specific requests to end stereotypes in the district. Ho-Chunk Nation Vice President Karena Thundercloud pointed to a robust curriculum developed by researchers to teach Native American history and culture and said “dressing up as you think an Indian would isn’t educational.”

“It’s racist,” Thunderclouod said. “There are no acceptable methods that call for dressing up like an Indian.”

Retired social work professor Alton “Sonny” Smart said dressing in a costume can reinforce negative stereotypes, Madison365 reports.

“Perception is the biggest part of communication. People see something, and from that they perceive … and from there they go on to fill in the gaps, and a lot of times, that’s a stereotype,” he said. “Sometimes you have individuals who think that they’re helping but actually they haven’t really checked with the individuals they’re trying to help.”

Barbara Munson, a member of the Oneida Nation and Chair of the Wisconsin Indian Education Association (WIEA) ‘Indian’ Mascot and Logo Taskforce, said the issue is a serious matter that deserves scrutiny.

“Stereotyping is harmful to us and to our children,” she said.

Barbara Munson at the press conference on Monday. Photo courtesy: Tricia Zunker’s Facebook page

Pointing out that the suicide rate among American Indians is 8% higher than the national average, she said stereotyping against the community was partly to blame.

Munson, who has been campaigning to retire indigenous mascots and logos from schools and sports teams, noted that Wausau is two hours from all the tribal communities in north central Wisconsin and could become a model on the subject.

In a statement last week, Wausau West Principal Jeb Steckbauer apologized for what he said was intended to be a “fun learning environment” that missed the mark. But critics say the issue is much more serious than the district is suggesting and call the portrayal the Indigenous equivalent of “black face.”

“You can’t dress as a race of people,” said Tricia Zunker, immediate past president of Wausau School Board. Zunker is also a justice on the Ho-Chunk Nation Supreme Court. “We are not a costume.”

Zunker outlined five specific suggestions to the Board and district leadership, three of which related to engaging experts on curriculum changes. She suggested to engage David O’Connor, Director of American Indian Studies Program at Department of Public Instruction, tribal leadership and the WIEA to help improve and strengthen the Indigenous studies curriculum “to ensure it is accurate and respectful.”

“And finally, it is clear too many people do not understand why the conduct was problematic,” she added. “As a result, I urge the board, administration and staff to complete implicit bias training.”

Zunker asked school officials to address the matter transparently with the public by including it on the next board agenda, and sending an email, issuing a press release and posting their responsive plan on the district website.

Researchers, indigenous community members and Native American leaders have been calling for change for decades now.

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

Biskakone Greg Johnson, a member of the Lac de Flambeau Band of Lake Superior Chippewa who posted video of the teacher in Native American costume after his son sent it to him, said this way of teaching has been going on for years.

Johnson’s son was called “snowflake” and “too sensitive” by some school students, only reinforcing what Native Americans and other minority communities have been talking about: first there is stereotyping, and when people who are impacted object, they are targeted.

Later, in a follow-up post on Facebook, Johnson applauded his son and others who came forward to speak out.

“I also am holding the word of administration to come clean to the school students and explain why you don’t play Indian,” he wrote. “They were given direct orders from us to make this right. There’s no wiggle room. And they gladly took what we offered.”

All speakers at the press conference and during the Committee meeting objected to Wausau West teacher’s years-long practice of dressing in costume, calling it a “race-based stereotype” that depicts Native Americans as “cartoonish.”

Later in the evening, the school administration issued a statement: “The Wausau School District’s mission is to advance student learning, achievement, and success. That’s why work is beginning in the District to review curriculum, and its delivery, to ensure it is respectful to all cultures and heritages. With these changes, the District will be providing ongoing professional learning for all staff. We are committed to ensuring all students thrive and there will be positive changes.”

This is the third statement from the school on the controversy.

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.”

Damakant Jayshi is a reporter for Wausau Pilot & Review. He is also a corps member with Report for America, an initiative of GroundTruth Project that places journalists into local newsrooms. Reach him at damakant@wausaupilotandreview.com.