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Indigenous leaders, Native Americans discuss recent incident at Wausau West High School

Published: Sep. 27, 2021 at 9:51 PM CDT
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WAUSAU, Wis. (WSAW) - Indigenous leaders, Native Americans and allies spoke at a press conference and at the Wausau School Board meeting Monday about a recent incident at Wausau West High School.

A teacher was dressed recently in a “Native American costume” as part of a history lesson. An Ojibwe student took a picture of the teacher and sent it to his dad, who then contacted the principal.

The Indigenous leaders and Native Americans want the school to acknowledge the disrespect they are feeling and an update to the school’s curriculum.

“I would’ve expected that even when I was young, but not today, definitely not today,” the father of the student who took the picture, Greg Johnson said. “What happens in the classroom or what doesn’t happen in the classroom, the wrong things are taught, stereotypes begin to roll and we all know as you get older you stay in your ways.”

Johnson said better education about their culture is needed. “There [are] people speaking out about it, but we have these nitwits they’re commenting and saying things [as] they know better or they know what it’s like to be discriminated against, but they don’t.”

Two years ago, former members of the Wausau School Board were the driving force behind the efforts of retiring Native American mascots and symbols. The former Wausau School Board President, and a Ho-Chunk community member was upset to see this happening.

“It was really sad for me last week to see the comments on some of the news stories, because so many people were saying, ‘oh that’s not offensive.’ I saw one comment about saying ‘what’s next? Is someone going to dress up in a witch costume, and then they’ll be upset.’ And that actually went to the point, the fact that Native Americans, we’re not a costume, we are people that exist in society and not some stereotype,” Tricia Zunker said.

Zunker listed five things she, along with the Indigenous leaders and Native Americans want to be done within the school district.

“Number one, engage David O’Connor the Director of American Indian studies at DPI for help strengthening the curriculum. Number two, engage tribal leadership for direction and assistance with curriculum improvement. Number three, engage Wisconsin Indian Education Association for assistance. Number four, hire a diversity and inclusion director because the instances continue to happen, and it is high time we have one of these individuals in the administration. And finally, it is clear that there are far too many people who don’t understand why this is problematic, so I urge the board, administration, and staff to complete implicit bias training.”

Zunker emphasized that “it is never good educational policy to stereotype an entire race of people, and the district needs to take this seriously.”

Johnson made a comparison to communicate how this affects him, his family and his community. “Imagine if I went into their church and I told them my version of what happened to Jesus, and all the things were ridiculous and didn’t make sense.”

The Wausau School District released a statement Monday night addressing what was said.

“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.”

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