A group of non-Indigenous students at Clintonville High School, in Clintonville, Wisconsin decided to perform an ill-advised mocking semblance of traditional Native American dance during a “dance off” competition that was part of the school’s homecoming festivities.
Video of the incident, seen below, was shared to Facebook and has received a lot of attention.
This performance led to school officials canceling all upcoming homecoming activities while they investigated the situation.
In a statement released on Facebook, the school district described the incident.
“During a lunchtime homecoming dance off, Non-American Indian students wrongfully created a disrespectful mockery of American Indian culture by imitating and misrepresenting an American Indian dance.”
They also noted the school district’s disapproval of the students’ actions.
“Immediate initial action steps have been taken, including the cancellation of all Friday homecoming events. Clintonville Public School District does not support, nor do we condone any behavior that would affect or offend any culture, race, color, religion, sex, nationality or origin.”
They thanked local tribespeople for their input and efforts to help educate on why what the students did was wrong.
“Clintonville Public School District would like to thank local tribes and tribal members who have already reached out to the district and offered cultural education and support.”
“We will seek additional input and put together a long term plan to repair the harm and use this incident to reflect upon, learn, embrace, and to better understand and celebrate the diversity of all, including the Tribal Nations of Wisconsin.”
You can read the school board’s entire statement below.
Paul Roberts, a social worker and member of the Ho-Chunk nation told Madison 365:
“From what I saw it looked like a complete mockery of our culture. We are really trying to revitalize not only our language but our culture. To have this nearby sets us back to when our culture was taken from us.”
Until the mid 1970s, traditional Native American language, religion, clothing, symbols, ceremonies and all aspects of cultural identity were illegal for Natives to practice or participate in in the United States. While enforcement had effectively ended some time before the laws were repealed, when first enacted Natives were imprisoned, children were sent to mandatory boarding schools where they were beaten for practicing their culture and many traditions died.
Those that remain survived against all odds in secret for years. To have those ceremonies that withstood cultural genocide is particularly painful.
He went on to describe exactly why the students’ behavior was so hurtful.
“There’s reasoning behind why we use that drum. There’s reasoning behind the steps we take. It’s all about honoring our ancestors. To see this mocked is disgusting. Our kids have been through enough.”
Marlon WhiteEagle, president of the Ho-Chunk Nation, also made a statement about the students’ actions and condemned the environment that led to their thinking such a display was acceptable.
“It saddens me that high school students from Clintonville, Wisconsin learn to act in such a careless manner.”
“Their inappropriate behavior is a direct reflection on their family, school and community. It’s no surprise that cultural appropriation continues when we live in a society that promotes inaccurate history in its classrooms and marginalizes the Indigenous people. It’s a complete irony that students mock Native culture inside an educational institution.”
However not everyone seems to agree with the district’s official response. Principal Kelly Zeinert felt the need to ensure students that homecoming events weren’t canceled out of an acknowledgement of wrongdoing on their part for allowing the students to mock Native Americans.
According to Zeinert, the cancellation was to avoid a:
“circus because of protesters who feel … that the students here at Clintonville High School are racist, and, in turn, me as well, because I allowed that to happen. Or so they think.”
There is no evidence that any sizeable protests were planned and Zeinert’s comments do not match the school district’s official stance.
One mother said that she and her family did plan to protest quietly. Alyssa Lonetree, whose husband and children are members of the Ho-Chunk Nation, said she wanted to bring to light what Indigenous students often deal with in American schools.
“I just want light shed on the ignorance our Native American children face.”
Reactions on social media were largely upset, but not surprised.
This is disgraceful and so inappropriate. The students and staff need a lesson in humanity
— Karen Bill (@KarenLBill) October 4, 2019
We will not be culturally appropriated. We will not be stereotyped and marginalized for your own “pop culture”. Clintonville School District needs to educate everyone on what our ancestors endured for us, original inhabitants of the land, to be here and what we still face. ✊🏽 pic.twitter.com/xd2JeWxVK6
— Namaewkukiw (@7Lady3) October 4, 2019
Disgusting. Definitely a Tribal Cultural Awareness Trainings needs to take place.
— Mariano (@mariano_archie) October 5, 2019
This one really hit home with me. I was so offended I almost called the school myself. I cant help but think what if my future kids went there? How did the students with native heritage feel? If I went there and someone did this I’d be so pissed I’d make a scene right there
— Cheynanigans 🦊 (@ContradictKiwis) October 6, 2019
as they should! Native American students should not be subjected to this kind of hateful, discriminatory behavior. so disgusting
— v (@ChevalierVi) October 4, 2019
The Ho-Chunk nation also posted a statement about the event to Twitter.
The Nation condemns the racially insensitive display by students at Clintonville’s homecoming rally. We are offering their leadership a conversation about the detrimental impacts of racism in our communities.
— Ho-Chunk Nation (@HoChunkNationPR) October 4, 2019
When children aren’t raised to understand that mocking sacred ceremonies from other cultures is wrong, they are bound to make mistakes. The responsibility for teaching children right from wrong lies with the educators and other adults in their lives.
Hopefully this incident will serve as a learning opportunity for others to understand why mocking traditional Indigenous ceremony is not an acceptable thing to do.
The book A Little Matter of Genocide: Holocaust and Denial in the Americas 1492 to the Present is available here for a comprehensive look at Native policy since first contact.
Listen to the first season of George Takei’s podcast, ‘Oh Myyy Pod!‘ where we explore the racially charged videos that have taken the internet by storm.
Be sure to subscribe here and never miss an episode.