Last September in the town of Bartlesville, 15-year-old Blue Haase got a ride to his local school board meeting. During the time for public comments, Blue, an enrolled member of the Cherokee Nation, took the mic and identified himself as a student representative of Operation Eagle, Bartlesville Public Schools’ district-funded Native education program. Reading from notes he had prepared, Blue asked why the district was still recognizing a holiday that honors Christopher Columbus, the Italian explorer whose colonization efforts included unspeakable atrocities. He asked the board to undertake a district-wide adoption of Indigenous Peoples’ Day, a celebration of Native culture and contributions.
When the Bartlesville Examiner-Enterprise ran a story about Blue’s remarks, a backlash followed. Blue had attended the meeting on a whim and hadn’t cleared his statement with Operation Eagle. His words were received as a blow to the district, which has been working closely with Operation Eagle for decades to support Native kids. To complicate matters, his mother, Jessie Haase, is president of parent committees for the program.
“The district doesn’t want to look bad,” Jessie said. “And Blue didn’t hold back.”
Jessie ran interference, fielding calls and comments from supportive school board members as well as those complaining that Blue had been excessively negative.
“I’m like, OK, well, you are not a 15-year-old Native American boy, so I don’t expect you to understand that negativity,” Jessie said. “You’ve never had people want to know what will happen if they cut your hair off. You’ve never had people for five or six years of your life call you a little Indian girl. You’ve never been on a field trip to the museum, where they talk about everything in a historical context—like moccasins and roaches and buckskin dresses that you take the kids to see at the museum—we have that in our house.”
The dust settled with the agreement that in the future, Blue would distinguish his own views from those of Operation Eagle. Meanwhile, the Examiner-Enterprise story had gone viral among Bartlesville High School students, many of whom began confronting Blue in class. When he got home from school, he armed himself with new facts to inform whatever debate he might find himself in the next day.
“They were like, ‘Why should we have a day just for Natives when they don’t have days for black people?’ ” Blue said. “And I’d argue with that, because they have a whole month: Black History Month. And they were like, ‘Well, why isn’t there a day for white people?’ I’m like, ‘That’s almost every day.’ ”
A few weeks later, a former principal who’d reconnected with Blue at the school board meeting arranged a conversation between Blue, Jessie, and representatives of the high school, school board, and Operation Eagle. Now the executive director of Employment & Human Resources for the district, the former principal has become a key ally to Blue’s push for Indigenous Peoples’ Day. Operation Eagle also came around to officially endorse the effort.
To be clear, Bartlesville Public Schools doesn’t celebrate Columbus Day in any formal way. However, the requirement to teach about Columbus Day appears multiple times in the Oklahoma Academic Standards, and Blue has interrupted more than one history lesson to provide more inclusive and historically accurate perspectives.
After a new superintendent joins the district this summer, Blue and his supporters will bring a formal proposition for Indigenous Peoples’ Day before the school board. Initially, they intended to share the holiday with Columbus Day. After numerous conversations with family and friends, Blue and Jessie decided to push for the total replacement of Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples’ Day.
Indigenous Peoples’ Day is unseating Columbus Day in communities across the country. Last year, Anadarko became the first town in Oklahoma to reinvent the second Monday in October. Though Oklahoma City voted against the new holiday, the University of Oklahoma, Oklahoma City University, and Southeastern Oklahoma State University soon followed Anadarko’s lead. The Muscogee (Creek) Nation, Choctaw Nation, and Delaware Tribe of Indians also adopted the holiday.
On October 9, 2015, as Indigenous Peoples’ Day gained ground even here in the Plains, President Obama released a wistful proclamation reaffirming the observance of Columbus Day. The “[d]etermined and curious” explorer “inspired many,” the article reads; “Columbus’s legacy is embodied in the spirit of our Nation.”
Even the proclamation’s brief acknowledgement of Native peoples is flanked with borderline nostalgia for European colonialism:
Though these early travels expanded the realm of European exploration, to many they also marked a time that forever changed the world for the indigenous peoples of North America. Previously unseen disease, devastation, and violence were introduced to their lives—and as we pay tribute to the ways in which Columbus pursued ambitious goals—we also recognize the suffering inflicted upon Native Americans and we recommit to strengthening tribal sovereignty and maintaining our strong ties.
After landing in the Caribbean in 1492, Christopher Columbus and the Europeans who followed him decimated the Native peoples they encountered by means including rape, kidnapping, enslavement, beheading, butchering, and boiling. Though Columbus was far from the first outsider to “discover” the area, his expeditions paved the way for rampant European colonization of North, Central, and South America.
Columbus Day became a U.S. holiday in the 1930s. Ostensibly (and incongruously) celebrating discovery and progress, the holiday has also become an element of Italian-American heritage and identity. It has come under growing scrutiny since the 1970s.
The Columbus mythology is just one piece of a complicated web Native kids navigate at school. Consider the grade school calendar: In October, kids learn about Columbus. When Halloween rolls around, they’re blasted with rampant cultural appropriation in the name of trick-or-treating. Thanksgiving brings more fairytales, feather headbands and paper pilgrim hats. And more than likely, football season throws at least a few Native mascots¹ into the mix. Native American Heritage Day falls on the Friday after Thanksgiving—which you might have missed if you were at Walmart buying a new television set. And that’s just the first semester. Come springtime, it’s land run reenactment season.
1. The problem of Native mascots persists at all tiers of the educational system and also among professional sports leagues, despite the American Psychological Association’s insistence for more than a decade that this theft of Native imagery harms Native kids and does a disservice to non-Natives as well. Most notably in Oklahoma, the national championship-winning University of Oklahoma athletics program continues to cling to a mascot and chant that celebrate “the land run, anti-indigeneity, genocide and cheating,” as a guest columnist put it recently in the OU Daily. Though the symbolism of OU’s Sooners places them in a bizarre category all their own, the related use of Native imagery for mascots and logos remains an equally intractable, very slowly crumbling holdout in Oklahoma.
A few years ago, Jessie filed away a Pocahontas worksheet her daughter, Kele Jane, brought home from school. Bookended with phrases including, “Whatever the real truth is,” and, “Whatever you believe,” the handout regurgitates popular notions of the Powhatan woman popularly known as Pocahontas.
“This is a very whitewashed version of Pocahontas,” Jessie said. “This isn’t what I tell my kids about Pocahontas. When I talk in terms of Pocahontas, it’s rape and enslavement. This poor woman was taken halfway across the world to entertain the colonial fantasies of taming the savage, and died there, and was never brought home to her people. And for Native people, with removal and death and things like that, where our families are, it means something to us. She’ll never be in her homeland. She’ll never lay in rest. That’s what we talk to our kids about—and then she brings home the little piece of paper that talks about John Smith and has the Pocahontas portrait with her in the colonial style clothing.”
The Pocahontas Complex, as Jessie calls it, takes shape in her kids’ lives in different ways. Kele Jane’s peers fawn over her when she wears the feathers and furs of her traditional clothing, but Blue has been called a fag, a girl, and a pussy since he began growing out his hair in second grade. His braid now reaches his mid-back, and a girl once yanked it so hard that he fell to the ground. Aside from the Twilight wolf pack—itself rife with problematic stereotypes—popular images of Native boys are largely absent from American media. Native girls, on the other hand, were widely objectified in popular culture long before Disney made it official. As Kele Jane’s classmates snap selfies with her, Blue’s wonder aloud what might happen if they cut off his braid.
“They have their different experiences just based off of what we’re teaching our kids when they’re young,” Jessie said. “What they’re watching, what they’re seeing, what they’re reading.”
Though Norman Public Schools discontinued land run reenactments in 2011, the Norman ‘89er Parade lived on despite burgeoning protests. Over the years, the parade has commemorated the Land Run of April 22, 1889, with everything from floats to fiddling contests to operas and, of course, covered wagons—the most conspicuous being the University of Oklahoma’s Sooner Schooner, that iconic horse-drawn Conestoga that races across the field at every home and bowl game. After this year’s ‘89er Parade, The Norman Transcript reported that organizers have announced a new name, Norman on Parade, due to growing pressure from protesters.
In Oklahoma City, the push to end reenactments hit a tipping point in November 2014 when White House representatives visited the city for a listening session with Native students. The event, one of nine gatherings in seven states, was part of the White House Initiative on American Indian and Alaska Native Education. The first effort of this kind and scope, the tour invited Native youth and other stakeholders to speak freely and candidly about bullying, discipline, mascots, and other challenges in their school environment.
For years prior to the listening sessions, Sarah Adams-Cornell, an advocate for social justice and Native American rights, had worked with Oklahoma City Public Schools’ Native American Student Services to end land run reenactments. Adams-Cornell, a member of the Choctaw Nation who has two school-age daughters, even organized presentations to replace the activity. For her, rethinking the way we teach the Land Run is about checking blind patriotism.
“When you consider that for many Native people, the Land Run is a celebration of genocide and land theft, it makes you look at it a little differently,” Adams-Cornell said. “…We certainly don’t believe in ignoring our history—we want to talk about it. But we want to talk about it truthfully. Consider that not all of these events are worth celebrating. And especially for our kids—they’re the ones who are usually doing these reenactments—so consider what you’re teaching your children. Consider asking your Native friends to give their opinion on these subjects and to make that available to your children.”
At the Oklahoma City listening session, Adams-Cornell’s younger daughter, Gabby Cornell, gave the following testimony, which appears in the initiative’s School Environment Listening Sessions Final Report:
When I was in kindergarten, my class did a land run reenactment. We ran on the playground and put flags in the ground and claimed the land. I don’t remember the teachers telling us it was Indian land and people were taking it from them. It makes me feel frustrated, mad, and sad that we had to do this. Why do teachers teach something that isn’t right? I want land run reenactments to stop. My mom made a deal with the principal. She said we can do Native American presentations at the school to teach about Native history, language, dance, and the awesomeness of our culture if [the school] will stop doing land run reenactments, and my principal said yes! They promised to never do land run reenactments again, but not everyone can go to my school. I think all schools should do this.
Testimonies like Gabby’s caught the attention of Aurora Lora, an administrator who had recently joined the district from out of state and was sitting in on the session.
“Because [Lora] wasn’t from Oklahoma and she hadn’t been doing those her whole educational career, she was like, ‘Why are we doing this? I don’t understand why this is happening in our schools,’ ” Adams-Cornell said. “Within a couple of days, she sent a mandate out and said, ‘Oklahoma City Public Schools are no longer participating in land run reenactments, from now on.’ …It took a six-year-old little girl at a microphone with somebody not from Oklahoma listening to it to go, ‘Yeah, this is easy. Why are we doing this?’ And that’s how the change came about. It wasn’t me going over and over again. It was little kids letting them know that this is hurtful.”
The following April, Adams-Cornell and Native American Student Services rolled out Oklahoma History Day, a first-person storytelling curriculum they created. The interactive, hands-on program piloted in two Oklahoma City schools, teaching Oklahoma history from the perspectives of a freedman, a Native person, an immigrant, a pioneer, and the federal government.
The day far exceeded expectations and kept the kids engaged and asking a ton of questions, Adams-Cornell said. The catch was trying to fit all the activities and information into one day. This year, the curriculum returned as Oklahoma History Week in two different schools. Adams-Cornell plans to ultimately package it for use by any teacher in the state.
Change finds some Oklahoma districts more slowly than others. Though Jenks Public Schools discontinued land run reenactments more than five years ago, the neighboring and much larger Tulsa Public Schools deemed it unnecessary to take an official stance on the activity. Mary Jane Snedeker, academic coordinator for social studies, said the district reached this position (or lack thereof) with the input of its Indian Pupil Education program. Few Tulsa schools, if any, still reenact the Land Run, Snedeker said—though it’s hard to actually know, because the district has no reliable method of accounting for what’s happening in each school. The district influences curriculum through workshops and curriculum maps, which guide instruction throughout the year.
“In our curriculum map,” Snedeker said, “we just put a note there that says, ‘If you are going to do some reenactment of the Land Run, you need to make sure that it is holistic and fully historic.’ ”
In practice, site-based management in Tulsa leaves the particulars of teaching to individual schools. Aside from suggesting resources such as curriculum maps and sample lessons, the district provides very little targeted direction for teaching the state standards, including sensitive and traditionally ill-addressed topics such as the Land Run and Columbus Day.
“There’s lots of gaps,” Snedeker said. “It’s like, ‘What do I teach?’ You might be teaching anything, really. It’s wide open.”
Under the leadership of Superintendent Deborah Gist, the district is moving away from site-based management toward a more cohesive culture. This includes developing a five-year curriculum management plan. In the next year, Snedeker said she’s creating a committee to address the teaching of controversial topics.
“We [the state of Oklahoma] are just behind times here—we’re 10 years behind times in education,” Snedeker said. “…We’ve been failing them, really. We haven’t done our job, and so that’s why we’re doing these things that we’re doing now. We want them to have access to things that are meaningful, purposeful, personal, applicable to their lives.”
Tulsa Public Schools’ Indian Pupil Education program primarily serves Native kids in an advocacy and cultural enrichment capacity. Resource advisors work with individual schools, but they lack the standing to shape curriculum in any lasting way. Using this program to mitigate the effects of institutionalized racism—rather than to directly address institutionalized racism through curriculum—seems like a missed opportunity for the district. Coordinator Mitch McGehee said Indian Pupil Education is working toward gaining a stronger voice, but that this wasn’t the program’s original purpose.
“We’re more of a supplemental program,” McGehee said. “It’s not our job to dictate the curriculum.”
With education funding cuts in excess of $100 million, the pursuit of a less destructive school environment for Native kids in Oklahoma is likely to be met with increasing pushback. The resistance Blue and Jessie face in Bartlesville sometimes employs the following line of argument:
“It’s like, ‘Oh here’s all those Indians protesting—they want to be treated different. We can’t teach about all the cultures.’ ” Jessie said. “Well, why not? Why can’t you? Why is culture not taught? Why are you only teaching for a math and reading test and not teaching culture or social skills?”
To that end, Operation Eagle is working with Bartlesville principals to enhance curriculum so kids are properly educated about Native history and peoples—and better prepared when it becomes age-appropriate to share the most difficult material with them.
“Life was ugly,” Jessie said. “And if we always whitewash everything that we tell our kids, then they grow up and they’re all like, ‘Woe is me.’ No, woe is not me. Rape is real. Murder is real. It’s what our country was built upon. It needs to be taught as such.”
Originally published in This Land: Summer 2016