CLINTONVILLE, WI The Wisconsin Indian Education Association and its board of directors have been monitoring the events surrounding a video originating from Clintonville High School in Clintonville, WI. The video, depicting what appeared to be four boys mock dancing to pre-recorded Native American pow-wow singing and drumming in the middle of a gymnasium, began circulating on social media on Thursday, October 3rd. Existence of the video and unfolding situation was brought to the attention of board president Brian Jackson that same day. On Friday, October 4th Jackson, along with others within the Association, began placing calls to the school seeking clarification to what many perceived as a disrespectful and culturally insensitive display. While those calls and subsequent voice messages went unanswered and unreturned, Jackson and colleagues remained engaged with individuals close to the situation.
After a lengthy investigation, which included a face-to-face meeting with Clintonville High School Administration, the Wisconsin Indian Education Association found the incident to have been a series of unfortunate and highly troubling events that highlight the need for increased cultural competence, diversity and inclusion within education at Clintonville and public schools across Wisconsin.
What began as a festive homecoming week for students at Clintonville High, ended in school-wide disappointment and calls for answers from members of neighboring tribal nations. The 44 second video of the four boys mock dancing to pre-recorded Native American singing and drumming began circulating on social media Thursday, October 3rd and went viral the following day. The boys, participating in a “Dance-Off” event, which was scheduled as one in a series of Homecoming Week activities that day, acted spontaneously and didn’t intended the skit to be malicious, according to Clintonville High School Principal Kelly Zeinert. Yet the explanation demonstrated the need for increased diversity and cultural competence within the school.
Administration says the dance skit was not authorized, approved or organized by staff or employees of the district.
“Our initial thoughts were this incident was not acceptable and we need to explain to our students why it wasn’t acceptable or culturally appropriate,” said Clintonville Superintendent David Dyb. “We need to review how we educate our students on being culturally aware in a global society,” added Dyb.
The mock tribal dance drew a backlash of responses from Native people across Wisconsin and news of the video made its way to the board of directors of the National Indian Education Association (NIEA)—which were holding the organization’s 50th annual convention the following week in Minneapolis.
Wisconsin Indian Education Association (WIEA) president Brian Jackson, who also serves on the board of directors for NIEA, traveled last Monday, Oct 21st to Clintonville to meet with Clintonville High School administration and student body to discuss the incident and encourage dialogue between the school and Wisconsin’s Native community.
Clintonville is geographically located in the center of four federally recognized tribal nations: The Ho-Chunk Nation, Menominee Indian Tribe, Oneida Nation and Stockbridge-Munsee Band of Mohican Community.
“The Wisconsin Indian Education Association takes seriously incidents that interfere or which have the potential to interfere with the education and/or well-being of Native American students,” said Jackson of the video. “So many people— Native people—were upset by the actions of the students in the video. I felt it was important to hear from Clintonville administration first-hand what happened,” continued Jackson.
The backlash was evident both online on social media and in real-world responses.
“When Kelly arrived at work on October 4th, she had 80-plus phone calls on her voicemail,” said Dyb of the Clintonville High principal’s messages. “The phone calls were then redirected to the district office and another 100-plus calls were received over the course of Friday through the following Monday,” recounted Dyb.
Tribal officials weighed in on the issue, releasing statements condemning the actions in the video.
Among the tribes commenting officially on the video were the Oneida, Menominee and Ho-Chunk.
In attendance at the Monday, October 21st meeting were Brian Jackson, WIEA President; Brandon Thoms, Public Relations and Communications Specialist and consultant to WIEA; Kelly Zeinert, Principal and Kimberly Bakeberg, Associate Principal, Clintonville High School. Dyb met with the WIEA representatives later that day.
Zeinert explained to Jackson that there was much more than meets the eye when it comes to the video. To many, what was shown on the video equated to cultural insensitivity and appropriation however, the untold story is just as complex as the issue itself. After investigating the incident, it came to light that one of the boys in the video plays hockey for the Shawano hockey team. The student told Zeinert that before practice and before some games, the team had listened to Native American pow-wow songs as part of their preparation to get them “pumped up.” It was shared that there are Native American players on the Shawano hockey team—teammates to one of the boys seen dancing to the pow-wow song in the video. According to Zeinert, it was that boy’s idea for the impromptu dance reenactment with the other boys following along. Zeinert said that there were multiple activities taking place throughout the school that day and that the “Dance Off” was just one of several events happening at the same time.
“The boys didn’t realize that what they were doing was inappropriate,” said Zeinert. “We talked with the boys extensively and they feel terrible. They were very remorseful. They now understand why what they did was so upsetting to others.”
Dyb expounded on the implications of the boy’s actions.
“Some of our Native students were offended by the dance,” said Dyb. “Likewise, many of our non-Native students were hurt that they were ‘lumped’ in with the boys that performed the dance—they felt like everyone in the school was being considered a racist,” added Dyb.
As a result of the video going viral and in response to the public backlash, it was announced at a school assembly Friday, October 4th that the homecoming game was cancelled not out of contrition but to avoid further controversy with the potential for 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,” said Zeinert to Madison 365.
“Every student and person affected by this situation has the right to feel the way they do about it,” said Jackson. “This demonstrates the importance of Act 31 and serves as a reminder that we all have a responsibility in educating our children to people of other races, ethnicities and cultures. It’s a challenging situation all the way around.”
As part of the Monday, October 23rd all-school assembly, a 10-minute clip of the 1995 PBS documentary Lighting the 7th Fire, an in-depth documentary on the Ojibwe treaty rights struggle of the 1980s and 90s. The film was shown to give context to the purpose of Act 31. Jackson and Thoms spoke of the 12 tribal nations in Wisconsin and the significance of each tribe’s language and culture. At the conclusion of the assembly, Jackson explained the significance of smudging with burning sage, while Thoms offered the traditional practice to students and staff—many of which participated.
To address the need for increased cultural competence, Clintonville High is working with individual tribal members, tribal administrators, WIEA and has planned a series of engagement sessions with Native American presenters and teachers.
Dyb says that the school is committed to healing and moving forward and has already begun that process.
“Dave Raasch, and elder of the Stockbridge-Munsee Tribe, came into the school on October 11th to do a restorative healing circle with the students who were involved and our Native American students who were willing to participate,” said Dyb. “Dave taught about the significance of the circle and shared pieces of the culture. He encouraged us to ask people when we have questions, rather than making assumptions,” added Dyb.
Raasch returned to the school on October 23rd to hold a restorative healing circle with Clintonville staff.
On Monday, October 28th, well-known Menominee/Stockbridge-Munsee musician, artist and historian Richie Plass brought his traveling exhibit titled “Bittersweet Winds” to Clintonville High. The exhibit showcases Native culture and heritage through traditional Native arts and crafts, writing and poetry, historical news articles and photographic images. The “Bittersweet Winds” exhibit was at Clintonville High through October 30 and was open to the public on October 28 and 29.
Plass said he wasn’t surprised when news of the video of the mock tribal dance broke.
“When I heard about it, I called Wendall Waukau at the Menominee School District and talked about getting the exhibit down here,” said Plass. “I’ve been around this so long that I knew I didn’t want to make any assumptions as to what happened,” continued Plass in reference to the video.
In bringing his exhibit to the school, Plass said he hopes that, “students and staff ask questions—so they’re actually made aware of the disparities (among Native Americans)—and understand why a lot of us (Native Americans) don’t agree or support what’s going on with the names (Indian team names) and images (Indian mascots and logos).”
I think that’s a major part of the exhibit. Hopefully they think differently when they see stuff like that happening (authentic pow-wow dances),” added Plass.
Dyb said that he and his administration are reviewing the current K-12 curriculum to make sure they are meeting the guidelines of Act 31. In addition, he says the school’s annual Diversity Day, which is scheduled to be held March 12, 2020, will focus on cultural awareness and sensitivity training.
WIEA’s Jackson encouraged the administration to strengthen the school’s engagement with neighboring tribes, reminding them that tribes have many resources and are willing to share.
“As an association, one of WIEA’s missions is to ensure Native students are afforded the same considerations that students from any other group would expect. That includes proper representation, protection and advocacy,” said Jackson. “By implementing Act 31 into the curriculum, schools can help to curb such incidents and ultimately, promote inclusion and understanding of just who we are as a people,” added Jackson.
As for Clintonville, the high school plans on taking steps to educate and inform their students about cultural awareness, differences among those cultures and acceptable practices relative to other cultures.
“We are taking this as an opportunity to learn and will continue to improve cultural sensitivity and awareness,” said Dyb.
The school plans to reschedule the canceled homecoming dance for a future date.
This article was previously published in the Hocak Worak