Barbara Gadbois/Duluth News Tribune
Students at Bayfield High School staged a walkout on Monday, June 3 to protest perceived insensitivity to American Indian culture in the school.

Wisconsin Students Stage Walkout, Cite Racial Issues

ICTMN Staff
6/6/13

About 15 students staged a walkout from Bayfield High School in Wisconsin on Monday, June 3 citing racial intolerance and insensitivity toward Native Americans, reported the Duluth News Tribune.

The Tribune says the students were inspired by high school valedictorian, Victoria Gokee-Rindal, a member of the Red Cliff Ojibwe band. In her commencement speech on Saturday, June 1, she said she couldn’t stay silent about issues between Native students and school officials any longer. One specific conflict involves whether students can smudge—a tradition using smoke to purify the body.

“Why is it that Native students of the Bayfield School District are made to feel like they have to check their Indian-ness at the door?” Gokee-Rindal asked, according to a written text of her speech. “Why is it that a fellow student has been made to feel inferior because of her individual right and request to be allowed to practice her culture in the way she has been taught? Why is it that teachers who support students in speaking their mind, and encourage their interest in their culture, are being targeted and disrespected for taking a stance for student rights?”

Bayfield School District superintendent David Aslyn says the topic of smudging is something the school is currently in talks with the Red Cliff community over. He addressed claims that were made about asking students to bathe after smudging, saying that wasn’t the case.

“I know there were some claims made on Facebook that we didn’t let students smudge before entering school. If they smudge that’s their business and we certainly didn’t make anybody bathe,” he told Indian Country Today Media Network. “We have some people who are allergic to the sweetgrass family of plants, but the school district is supportive of smudging, we just can’t have it in the building. If they need to smudge in school, and can use an alternative [to sweetgrass]… Nobody wants to stop anyone from smudging.”

Gokee-Rindal, told Northland News Center, that there are signs posted in the school that say no smudging. “It’s something that helps us feel better as Native people, it’s almost like a cleansing for the body,” she added.

The valedictorian feels her speech may have been the catalyst to the social media organization of the walk out, which was attended by some 15 students—all with parental permission. They walked to the Red Cliff Tribal Center, where they were joined by other tribal members.

“Our culture is being pushed under the rug. We’re being told we can’t smudge when people in federal prisons can smudge,” Breanna Deregon, a student involved in the walk out, told Northland News.

While school officials thought smudging was the reason for the walk out, Aslyn was later told that it wasn’t the only reason. With a K-12 district of 450 students that are more than 75 percent Native American, maybe the issue goes deeper.

Northland News Center spoke to Nick Vanderpuy, a former substitute teacher at Bayfield, who said he witnessed several acts of discrimination toward Native students.

“Frankly, I don’t think I’d go back to work there even if they paid me triple, I’m disgusted by the way that school operates,” he said.

Gokee-Rindal, who did not take part in the walk out, does hope it’ll bring about some needed changes in the community.

“I would like to see a change where we can be ourselves and our culture can be integrated into the school. We’re almost 80 percent of the school, it should reflect in our teachers and in the teachings that happen around the school,” she told Northland News.

Aslyn said the first meeting with the Elder Council, which will be a standing committee of the school board, was held June 5. “For issues that involve cultural sensitivity that group will be in place to give advice to the school district to meet the needs of our Native students and families,” he said.

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Two Bears Growling's picture
Two Bears Growling
Submitted by Two Bears Growling on
This is an outrage! Time after time lately we are being discriminated against. Told our rights stop before entering a building of public education, etc. I'm sorry, but our rights DO NOT stop the moment we enter a building. Our young people's rights do not end to be native 24/7/365 just because they are on some government funded property & in the buildings. These administrators & teachers had better get an education about our rights, freedoms & the treaty's the white government are STILL bound by! There is no excuse for this type of behavior. EVER! People of our First Nations stand up for our rights given us by our Creator. Stand up & expose the underhanded tactics going on against our people; regardless or ages or genders. Stand up & be Idle No More! Stand up & take a stand against this evil going on. There are 2 kinds of people on Turtle Island. Those who uphold what is right & of a good way or those who are evil & take ever opportunity to try & take our rights away hoping we will just roll over like some old possum! I don't know about the rest of you my friends, but I do not shut up about injustices. I do not turn my head the other way to evil things going on. I pray to the Creator the rest of my extended family all across Indian Country don't either! The real battles & war going on this world isn't about what you can always see my friends, but it's about the forces of Light & those of the Evil One & his army of Darkness. The spiritual realm is ever bit as real as the world you see with your fleshly eyes. Darkness is on the loose in a very big way in this world my friends. To stand up against injustice & taking a stand drawing a line on the ground declaring to the Evil One & his forces, "You shall not come here!"

Wind between my ears's picture
Wind between my ears
Submitted by Wind between my ears on
This is not an outrage, all smoking indoors should be banned. Religion in schools should be kept at home. This is not discriminating against a culture no more than removing the Lords prayer in schools. Time to grow up and know that freedom only encompasses when your not hurting someone else. There is no scientific proof that sweet grass is not carcinogenic. I am not sitting by Idle No More, people need to see the truth.
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