Jan 28, 2013 - Teaching Indian Children to Play Indian? by Brandon Ecoffey
*Article originally printed in Native Sun news* Teaching children to play “Indian”: Thanksgiving at Maria Montessori School By Brandon Ecoffey Native Sun News Staff Writer SAN DIEGO – In a time when political correctness is the new norm it is not often that a school blatantly institutionalizes racially insensitive practices however, this seems to be the case at the Maria Montessori School in San Diego CA. Jeanne Eagle Bull-Oxendine and her husband James Oxendine are both United States Navy Veterans and are both enrolled members of Tribal Nations. Jeanne is an Oglala Lakota born and raised on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota and James is a member of the Lumbee Nation hailing from Pembroke, NC respectively. They both have travelled the world extensively serving their country and representing Indigenous people in far off lands. Recently the couple settled with their four kids in San Diego, CA where James works as the Combat Systems ADP Officer on the Littoral Combat Ship and Jeanie is furthering her education. They have struggled to carve out their own version of the American dream and are working hard to instill a sense of belonging and self-awareness of their traditional roots in their four children despite not currently living in a Native American community. Often the difficulty facing many Native Americans who have left their communities in search of other opportunities is addressing the many stereotypes that still exist in mainstream American culture about indigenous peoples. The misappropriation of Native American culture is not uncommon with the prevalence of Native American themed mascots in professional sports, the continued development of marketing campaigns that promote inaccurate depictions of Native peoples, and even in the behavior of celebrities who still feel that it is ok to play “Indian”. So when the Oxendine’s were forced to confront the mockery of their cultural heritage at their children’s school-where they least expected it-needless to say they were caught by surprise. “My daughter Jada came home and said, ‘Ina (mother) they are trying to make fun of us at school’ and handed me a flier detailing the schools thanksgiving celebration,” said Jeanie Eagle Bull-Oxendine. During the week leading up to the Thanksgiving holiday the Maria Montessori School-where the Oxendine’s two youngest children attend school-holds a week long holiday celebration where non-Native teachers, parents and school administrators hold a number of events recognizing the holiday, which according to the school are meant to promote thankfulness and the importance of the first thanksgiving. Some of the events could be seen as highly offensive and ignorant. The festivities include the making of Native American Head dresses, the giving out of “authentic” Native American names, the construction of drums, and culminates in a meal where teachers, parents, and students are encouraged to come dressed as either a Pilgrim or the much more coveted Native American. “I approached the teacher at the school and told her that as Native Americans and as veterans we found these practices extremely offensive,” said Jeanne Eagle Bull-Oxendine. “I asked them to stop the practices and even offered to come in and help educate the parents and other students about Native American culture,” she added. The teacher however was not responsive to Eagle Bull-Oxendine’s feedback and made it known that the thanksgiving practices at the school were a thirty year old practice that the school was not looking to abandon. “I could not believe that in this day and age stuff like this continues to happen in our schools,” said Eagle Bull-Oxendine. In an attempt to prevent her daughter Jada, and son Jasa from enduring the events and the inevitable confusion that would come along with the experience Jeanne worked her way up the chain of command asking school officials to either discontinue the practices of modify them in a way that would more accurately portray Native people. The school’s response was not what was expected. Instead of working to help address the concerns of the Oxendine’s and their dissatisfaction with the Thanksgiving holiday events the school suggested that the best course of action would be that they keep their kids out of school while the events took place. “It is our intent to not exacerbate this situation any further, and hence our request for your children to remain home for this week,” the school said in a letter. Shocked at the schools response Jeannie began approaching other parents at the school informing them of the concerns that she had. This however was greeted with an additional letter from the school. “As a school, we also want to limit your public discussions amongst our parents of your displeasure with our long-standing traditional Thanksgiving observance in our pre-school. Because of your dissatisfaction with the changes we offered to make in the curriculum, some of the activities that cause you so much concern will continue through this week,” the school responded. After they were informed by the school that they were not to speak publicly about their opposition to the school’s Thanksgiving curriculum the Oxendine’s contacted the American Montessori Association (AMA) who is responsible for the accreditation of Maria Montessori. They were told by the AMA that they could not force the school to do anything but would look in to it. Frustrated by the lack of concern shown by school administrators the Oxendine’s began looking for other schools where there children would not have to endure the racial insensitive practices that would continue to occur at Maria Montessori School. While looking however, the family was informed by the school that they would need to reapply for their kids’ scholarships. Tuition to attend the school is over $8,000 a year. Ironically the Oxendine children were awarded their scholarships based on their Native American lineage according to Jeanne Oxendine-Eagle Bull. “It seems like as soon as we started contacting other organizations about our concerns the scholarships were questioned,” said Eagle Bull-Oxendine. “All we want is the best education possible for our kids in an environment where they can be respected as people and as Native Americans,” she added. The family feels that had they not questioned the practices of the school their kids would still have their scholarships at Maria Montessori School. The school did not respond to requests by Native Sun News for comment. The Oxendine’s have begun looking for legal advice and the support of other Native American organizations in southern California. “We feel like we have exhausted all our options with the school and are now reaching out to other Native organizations for help,” said Jeanne. “We are also looking in to possibly exploring legal action against the school hopefully something works out for us,” she added. (Contact Brandon Ecoffey at email@example.com)
Brandon Ecoffey is an Oglala Lakota who was born and raised on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. He attended Dartmouth College in Hanover, NH where he studied Native American Studies and Government with an emphasis on Political Theory. He is currently a staff writer for Native Sun News in Rapid City South Dakota. He writes on all issues pertaining to social justice in Indian Country and is an advocate for the reformation of drug policy in the United States.