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Indigenous people demand Iowa City schools provide anti-racism training

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Sikowis Nobiss is executive director of the Great Plains Action Society, a collective of Indigenous organizers working to resist and re-Indigenize colonial institutions, ideologies and behaviors. (Photo provided by Sikowis Nobiss)

IOWA CITY — Indigenous people in the community are asking the Iowa City Community School District to provide annual anti-racism training to educators and educational resources for teaching staff for a better understanding of Indigenous people.

In a Dec. 5 letter to school and Iowa City officials, a group demanded these changes in addition to planning and carrying out a community celebration for Indigenous Peoples Day on Oct. 9.

“It is the duty of our schools to educate our children with truth and compassion as well as the duty of this city to stand for justice and end racism,” the letter stated. “When our children are taught false narratives in school … it is doing them harm. When they are exposed to disrespectful behavior, that behavior is normalized.”

The group suggested educational resources for Iowa City educators such as “Rethinking Columbus: The next 500 years,” which counters the tale of Christopher Columbus traditionally taught to encourage a deeper understanding of colonization.

Eloisa Roach, member of the Shawnee Tribe and a junior at Iowa City High School, described inaccurate representations of Indigenous people and culturally insensitive lessons she’s been taught in the district. Roach said students have mocked ceremonial and cultural songs and used racial slurs in the classroom.

One of her assignments when she was a student at South East Junior High School during the 2019-20 school year was to “design a colony” set in the year 1620, Roach said Tuesday at an Iowa City school board meeting during public comment.

“When I expressed discomfort with the idea of creating a colony in which we would have to steal Native land in order to create it, my teacher said that the land was already settled and that land theft itself was not an issue. This is not historically accurate,” Roach said.

Roach was given an alternative assignment. However, her classmates working on the original assignment made “derogatory comments that went unaddressed by my teacher,” she said.

Sikowis Nobiss, executive director of the Great Plains Action Society, said it’s time the district and city put resources and effort toward stopping the discrimination and racism of Indigenous people. The Great Plains Action Society is a collective of Indigenous organizers working to resist and re-Indigenize colonial institutions and ideologies.

It “is not just harmful to the children being discriminated against,“ Nobiss said during the school board meeting. ”It’s harmful to every single child because the act of colonization and genocide did not just make Indigenous people sick and suffer. They themselves suffer from a disease of violence and racism, leading to more white supremacist sentiment.“

In November 2022, Nobiss watched her daughter in a performance at Shimek Elementary School based on the book “Fry Bread: A Native American Family Story” by Kevin Noble Maillard.

In the performance, the children enacted sacred drumming practices while “singing gibberish,” Nobiss wrote in the letter. “Just because something is written in a book, it does not mean it is legitimate or meant for white folks to emulate.”

Performances like this erase the meaning and cultural importance of drumming and dancing to Native nations, Nobiss said. “We are the first nations of this land. This is stolen land. We deserve not to be erased, not to be whitewashed, not to be stereotyped or to be ‘played Indian’ by children,” she said.

Nobiss said she would like to see the district adopt a policy that teachers with culturally sensitive lessons plans have to meet first with a diversity committee or follow other procedures.

Iowa City schools Superintendent Matt Degner said school leaders have a meeting scheduled Friday with the group of concerned residents.

“Sometimes we do cause harm, even if that’s not the intention,” Degner said. “We do apologize for that. We’re looking forward to working, improving, learning and growing. I think the district has demonstrated a good track record of doing so when we’ve made mistakes or problems in the past.”

Degner said officials will bring recommendations to the school board.

“The Iowa City Community School District never condones racism or discrimination of any kind,” Iowa City schools spokeswoman Kristin Pedersen said in a statement Wednesday. “We take reports of this nature very seriously and we want to make sure that our students, parents, staff and community members feel heard and understood. Our focus remains on our important diversity, equity, and inclusion work, and we are committed to ensuring that everyone feels safe, welcome, and valued in our schools.”

Marie Krebs, member of the Apache Nation and the Iowa City Truth and Reconciliation Commission, said there aren’t many voices for Indigenous communities because of erasure.

“What this has brought up for me is my ancestors are Apache, from what I understand. I don’t know any of my people or any of our ways. I was raised as a Spaniard. … I look at pictures of my family and I look in their faces and I wonder, who am I?“ Krebs said through tears during public comment.

Krebs’ son played football in October 2019 with the RedZone League, a football academy in Iowa City. Her son was assigned to the team Redskins, which is considered a slur against Indigenous peoples.

“I spent the football season not knowing how to cheer for my son’s football team, sitting through people yelling racial slurs,” Krebs wrote in the Dec. 5 letter.

The Dec. 5 letter was addressed to Iowa City school board president Ruthina Malone, Laura Gray, Iowa City schools executive director of diversity and cultural responsiveness, Iowa City schools Superintendent Matt Degner, Iowa City Mayor Bruce Teague, Chasity Dillard, chair of the Iowa City Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and the Iowa City Human Rights Commission.

It was signed by Nobiss, Roach, Krebs, representation director with the Great Plains Action Society Jessica Engelking, owner of the House of Dotł’izhi in Iowa City Alicia Velasquez and owner of South Side Street Foods in Iowa City Daniel Velasquez.

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