Teacher's Racist Class Skit Highlights Bias Against Native Americans in Schools

A Native American mother calls for a change in our education system after a teacher mocks Native American culture in a California school. 

An image of empty desks of a classroom.
Photo: Getty Images.

It is time for math class at John W. North High School in Riverside, California. A student sitting in the middle of the classroom picks up his phone. The teacher has put on a homemade paper "Native American headdress" and begun a ritual of her own making. The student hits record.

What viewers on Instagram see later that day, in a series of short videos taken with the student's phone, is a reprehensible display of racism against Native American people. In the videos, the teacher performs a skit, hamming it up in an attempt to solidify the mnemonic device "SohCahToa," used to help remember three basic trigonometry ratios that solve for missing sides and angles in a right triangle. The teacher shows crude caveman-like drawings of Native Americans on a series of slides as she stomps and prances around the classroom, Tonto-style, mocking Native culture and spirituality. At one point, she pretends to pray to a "water goddess" and talk to rocks, making fun of Indigenous spirituality. She laughs at her own ridiculous performance, breaking character.

The student, who recorded the display in October, watched on, in his long, braided dark hair. He holds a Native name. Later, he stated that he decided to post the videos because he felt that "an act of violence was being committed against him."

And he is absolutely correct. Racism impacts Native children and children of color in negative ways that stick with them their whole lives. For example, rates of suicide in Native young adults are higher than any other race in America. Percentages of Native children struggling in education and the justice and foster care systems far exceed the rates of their peers.

However, outright racism like this teacher's display isn't the only type Native people in this country combat on a daily basis. A recent report by Native-led nonprofit initiative IllumiNative found that invisibility is just as negatively impactful. The report shows that the vast majority of Americans know little to nothing about Native people, many of whom believe Native Americans do not even exist. The report, "Reclaiming Native Truth," proves that our education systems, like the one employed at John W. North High School, are failing all of our students when it comes to the history and contemporary issues in our own country.

In the days after the video was posted, the teacher was reprimanded, and just placed on leave. Protests began outside of her home and place of work. Native and non-Native people alike blasted her on social media, calling for administrators to fire her.

While this teacher must be held accountable, the onus is truly on our educational system, which is failing to prepare educators adequately to serve as mentors and role models to our children, or even teach accurate representations of our country's own Indigenous peoples. At the very least, we expect that our children will be safe at school, rather than subjected to physical or emotional abuse, whether via racism or otherwise.

The most upsetting and—at the same time—unsurprising thing about the situation is that the teacher had been doing this for years, and not only was she allowed to do so for so long, but that she was even celebrated for her racist methods. These videos brought to light the deep, systemic racism present in not only the Riverside school district, but also the community at large. An article published in The Press-Enterprise shortly after the incident quoted two Riverside residents who felt that the teacher was not engaging in racism, but simply "teaching creatively," and that "people are so sensitive." Yet, what the teacher did was akin to painting on blackface and shucking-and-jiving, which has been widely deemed blatantly racist in American culture in recent decades.

What we need are allies in the educational system who will help eradicate racism at its source. We need parents on the PTA who will push for administrators to develop and implement solid equity plans. We need to have processes for students and parents to pursue grievances when acts of racism occur against them, whether by another student, a teacher, or even a school administrator.

What is most hopeful about the findings of "Reclaiming Native Truth" is that more than 70 percent of Americans are interested in learning more about Native people and support Native political interests, increased representation, and inclusion of Natives in entertainment, and significant changes to K–12 curricula to ensure accurate Native history and culture is taught in schools.

As a Native mother, my hope is that parents, together, can help move racial equity forward in our children's educational systems for the benefit and emotional and physical safety of all of our children, thereby ensuring racism is no longer a barrier to educational success for any child.

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