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Navajo president, others call for APS action

Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal

The president of the Navajo Nation, the local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union and the mother of a Native American student are urging Albuquerque Public Schools to make changes after an incident in which a teacher is accused of calling the student a “bloody Indian” and snipped the end of another Native American student’s braid during class.

The English teacher at Cibola High School, who APS has said is “highly regarded,” remains on paid leave while the incident is investigated.

On Nov. 2, APS sent a letter to families of students at the West Side high school saying a teacher was being investigated after allegations were made that she made a “culturally insensitive remark to one student and snipped the hair of another student.” APS spokeswoman Monica Armenta said at the time that the incident occurred on Halloween when the teacher was conducting her lesson plan while wearing a New Orleans voodoo-like costume and impersonating a book character.

Shannon Johnson, who says her daughter was called a “bloody Indian” by the teacher, is urging the school district to require courses about Native American culture and history.

And Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye is demanding the governor and the state Public Education Department require Cibola High School to do cultural sensitivity training. He would like to see this statewide for other schools, too.

The ACLU has also weighed in, sending APS an eight-page letter with a list of demands, including a public apology to students.

Johnson, who is Navajo, recalled the incident, which APS said was a “Halloween stunt.”

“(The principal) told me there was an incident in my daughter’s first-hour class and Ms. Eastin … she called my daughter a ‘bloody Indian,’ ” Johnson said.

Mary Eastin is listed as a language arts teacher at Cibola High School in the school’s directory; she could not be reached for comment.

Armenta said in a statement that the actions of one teacher don’t reflect the “values exhibited daily by thousands of APS employees.” She said APS is sensitive to the needs of Native American students, mentioning a district department that focuses on their advancement.

‘Can’t believe this’

The mother of 17-year-old student McKenzie Johnson said her first reaction was disbelief.

“I can’t believe this is happening in this day and age,” she said, adding that she was very upset.

She told the Journal that her daughter was dressed like Little Red Riding Hood, including a bloody paw mark on her face.

On Wednesday, McKenzie Johnson spoke at an APS District Equity and Inclusion Committee meeting, recalling that day. She described feeling taken aback to be called a “bloody Indian” by a teacher.

Many others spoke in support for her at the meeting.

Shannon Johnson said the teacher cut off the bottom tip of another Native American student’s braid in the same class on Halloween.

She said the incidents are an indicator of a more important issue: the lack of cultural awareness and Native American education within the school district for both students and staffers. Johnson said she considers being called an “Indian” to be offensive and derogatory.

She also emphasized the cultural significance hair plays among Native Americans.

“Across the board, I think we all view our hair as sacred because there is a lot tied into it,” she said. “In the Navajo culture, the hair plays a large role in the coming-of-age ceremony.”

Although Johnson plans on keeping her daughter at Cibola, she wants to see APS mandate Native American history and Native American literature in the curriculum. She also wants APS to ban costumes that mimic Native American dress, which she says her daughter saw at Cibola on Halloween, as well.

APS Board of Education President David Peercy told the Journal a task force, put in place shortly after the accusations, is working on a resolution and will look across the district to identify systemic problems.

Calls for change in APS

Begaye, the Navajo Nation president, expressed solidarity with the Johnson family.

He said he was alerted by people in Albuquerque about the incident, adding that he traveled from Window Rock, Ariz., and met with the Johnson family during a New Mexico Indian Education Advisory Council meeting on Monday.

“One of the students was Navajo, and this is of big interest to us,” he told the Journal.

“Our Native youths should not have to endure this kind of behavior, especially in the classroom. We will hold the teacher, the school and the district accountable for these actions, and we demand recourse,” Begaye wrote in a statement.

He also said the Cibola teacher’s actions should start bigger, statewide conversations.

“We have a whole history of Navajo children where their hair was cut off and really subjected to deculturalization and being denied to speak the language,” he said, adding that teachers need to think about what they say and do in light of historical trauma and context.

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About 30 students protested outside Cibola High School earlier in November after a teacher was put on paid leave for allegedly making a culturally insensitive remark and cutting another student’s hair. (Dean Hanson/Albuquerque Journal)

PED spokesman Chris Eide said the state department “stands with” Begaye, adding that cultural learning should be integrated into school communities. His statement did not say whether PED would require further action from APS. But the state agency said its Indian Education Department and Language and Culture Bureaus will be providing training on culture and education in schools.

The ACLU of New Mexico sent an eight-page letter to APS the day after Begaye’s demands, calling for an apology and calling for the district to make a plan for students to safely express if they feel uncomfortable or unsafe due to the incident, a formal announcement backing Native American students at Cibola and regular communication about the investigation.

The letter also echoed Begaye’s and Johnson’s demands for cultural competency training.

The ACLU emphasized that “instances of overt racism” are not isolated to Cibola and listed several examples from other APS schools.

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