“What happened after Chief Short Cake Died?” That was the question posed at the top of 17-year-old Noah Archer’s assignment on Friday, September 28. The answer to which was, “Squaw Bury Short Cake.”
His mother, Abbey Thompson, snapped a photo of her son’s completed assignment with her cell phone and uploaded it onto her Facebook page on Sunday, September 30 and it’s drawn quite a response.
Thompson, a member of the Lac du Flambeau Band of Lake Superior Chippewa in Wisconsin, said she’s received messages from people all over the United States and Canada.
“As a white person, I am pissed my tax dollars are being spent to belittle and oppress Native students,” Mary Sharlow says on Facebook. “I am pissed my tax dollars are being spent to promote white privilege. I am pissed LUHS continues to teach racism.”
Thompson was “at a loss for words” when she posted the picture and said she “thought Lakeland Union High School was making progress in the area of race relations until I saw this.”
Richard A. Vesbach, the math teacher who assigned the homework and is in his third year of teaching at LUHS, has written a number of letters apologizing.
“It is with deepest regret and intense humility,” he begins one of the letters, dated October 1 and addressed to Joni Theobald, the Lac du Flambeau Tribe’s education director. In the letter he explains that the assignment was in an outdated book of worksheets from the 1980s he found in the room when he first started teaching. He also says he has discarded the book.
“None of that excuses what has happened and I take full responsibility for my actions,” Vesbach continues. “No one else is to blame but me. As a result, LUHS has appropriately sent me home for the day. I recommended that they not pay me.”
The full extent of the disciplinary actions against Vesbach are unknown and school administrators aren’t saying.
What district administrator Todd Kleinhans did say is that Vesbach’s actions in no way represent the environment the school has tried to create, which is one that welcomes all students, including the 22 percent that attend who are Native American.
“I think it’s safe to say that the school is very disturbed by what transpired. It’s safe to say that administratively and collectively it’s not the behavior that we expect of our staff,” Kleinhans said. “The district has taken the issue very seriously… is embarrassed by it and is in agreement that it was very insensitive and it will not be tolerated.”
In response to Vesbach’s letter, Theobald wrote one of her own on October 2 and said this incident can educate everyone involved and be a way to better equip the teachers to serve the Native students.
But she also didn’t make light of the incident. “Our tribal (Lac du Flambeau) interactions with school officials, teachers and board members, and for many of us, student to student, have been plagued by little mis-happenings, subtle intended and unintended remarks, and unfortunately, curricular content that has belittled and portrayed Native people in paternalistic relationships since written histories began. Your [Vesbach] error in judgment brings serious concerns to our community, as well as adds one more ‘little occurrence,’ though unintended as you have stated, that will perpetually affect our children,” she stated in her letter. “This also gives the perception that the school climate tolerates negative racial biases, images, especially when administration perceives these types of instances warranting little attention. Family members are already wary of an institution that has done little to address cultural/language inclusion, implementation of Act 31, or prepare our students for post-secondary school readiness, and has taken common errors of judgment lightly when they have adverse impacts on our children.”
In its 1989-1991 budget the Wisconsin state legislature introduced statutes mandating education about the state’s American Indians as a way to combat racism, those statutes are commonly referred to as Act 31.
Theobald goes on to say that even a single mistake can have an impact on the entire community and points out that, “had you [Vesbach] issued an assignment with the ‘N’ word used, your consequence would have been severe and swift. Unfortunately, even though the word ‘squaw’ carries the same connotation as that, we as tribal people know we find ourselves with few advocates among public policy, both at the federal and state levels.”
She is asking Vesbach and the school to send a written apology to all the students and their families at LUHS. She’s also asking the school to send Vesbach and two additional staff to the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction American Indian Studies Summer Institute during the summer of 2013 and to send two staff for three years after that. The course is meant to “increase participants’ understanding of issues related to the history, culture, and tribal sovereignty of the federally recognized tribes and bands in Wisconsin,” says the course information on the University of Wisconsin – Green Bay website.
Theobald’s letter also addresses the need for a five-year professional development plan at LUHS that includes tribal culture and content across curriculums.
Thompson also hopes this incident brings more cultural sensitivity to the LUHS school curriculum.
“Even if this was an oversight by one teacher, it reveals a problem that has plagued the Wisconsin Northwoods community for decades, and it ranks right up there with the mascot issue, the stereotyping of Native Americans,” she told ICTMN. “With Columbus Day approaching again, this would be an excellent topic of discussion for everyone. What word does your average American use in their daily vocabulary—Indian giver, for instance, or in this case ‘squaw’—without thinking that would offend us? How do they think WE feel when we see people dressed in an Indian costume for Halloween? This kind of thinking and oversight needs to be corrected. Public institutions such as our schools must take that first step.”