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Family Stands Against School’s Racist Thanksgiving Curriculum

The Oxendine family is in dispute with the Maria Montessori School in San Diego over its Thanksgiving curriculum and their daughter's scholarship.
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The Oxendine family have long valued how Montessori schools educated their four children, especially with Montessori’s stated principles of inclusiveness and compassion.

They were, thus, thrilled when their youngest children Jada, 7, and Jase, 5, received scholarships in 2012 to the Maria Montessori School in San Diego due to their family’s Native American and military backgrounds. But now the Oxendines say an ongoing conflict over the school’s problematic, now cancelled Thanksgiving curriculum has led to the revoking of Jada’s scholarship, something school officials deny.

Red flags were raised in early November 2012 when they learned the school was planning Thanksgiving classroom activities encouraging students to dance around teepees, dress up as Indians with headbands of multi-colored feathers and give each other “Indian names.”

“Whenever we go back to [the Pine Ridge Reservation] where my wife is from, [the children] are surrounded by ceremonies and dances. They’re taught feathers are sacred and only for ceremony,” said James Oxendine, Lumbee, an information systems officer in the U.S. Navy. “And it was confusing for them to see the school doing it differently and perpetuating stereotypes in this way.”

After receiving a newsletter describing the week of potentially offensive activities, his wife, Jeanne Eagle Bull-Oxendine, Oglala Sioux, decided to try to engage the school in creating a culturally appropriate curriculum.

What followed is in dispute. School officials say they immediately ended the curriculum and have tried to cooperate with the Oxendines.

But the Oxendines say the school resisted ending their Thanksgiving tradition, and told them to keep their kids at home rather than change the curriculum and eventually revoked their daughter’s scholarship to be rid of their complaints.

“They said they were doing these activities to honor us [Native Americans], but then they wanted us to stay home while they were honoring us,” said Eagle Bull-Oxendine.

The family has posted a petition demanding the school issue an apology, reinstate their daughter’s scholarship and implement the National Museum of the American Indian’s holiday curriculum.

Dena Stoneman, co-director of the school, said the petition is misleading for many reasons, including that it makes readers think the school is still conducting the same Thanksgiving curriculum this year.

“It saddens us [that] they’re using this platform for personal gain when they should be using it to promote Native American rights and how to correctly teach about Native Americans,” Stoneman said.

She described the “rich curriculum” as being developed to teach students about how many different Native American tribes have lived in the past and now live in the present day. Once they learned the use of the feathers was offensive, they dropped the curriculum, and invited Eagle Bull-Oxendine to do a presentation and even start a diversity committee, Stoneman said.

Stoneman also said that the Oxendines dis-enrolled their daughter when she couldn’t guarantee them that no children would wear their headbands with feathers to school. The scholarship money had already been allocated to another student when the Oxendines tried to re-enroll her, she said.

This year, Stoneman said they are asking students and families to celebrate at home because they have the week off.

The Oxendines, however, say the school continued with the curriculum last year, and only announced its cancellation this year. Eagle Bull-Oxendine said when she tried to raise the issue with the directors of the school, she was told students would be too disappointed if they weren’t allowed to have their Thanksgiving traditions. Then when she tried to approach the parent liaison about the issue, she was told her children would be dis-enrolled if she continued to raise the issue.

The Oxendines said they made a quick decision to try to enroll Jada in public school, fearing she would miss the rest of the term if she was kicked out of Maria Montessori. They changed their mind a couple days later, and were shocked to learn their daughter’s scholarship had so quickly been given to another student.

“You go through a lot of emotions,” Eagle Bull-Oxendine said. “Rosa Parks didn’t stop riding the bus because she didn’t have the front seat. Our daughter has every right to attend on that scholarship.”

Currently, Jada is being homeschooled, her parents said, and she has suffered some psychological effects from what happened. Their son is still at Maria Montessori, and the Oxendines say they have been impressed with his teacher. Their main issue is with the school’s administration, they say.

“We want to raise awareness that no classroom activity should make a mockery of our culture,” Eagle Bull-Oxendine said. “We’re doing this for Jada, but we’re also doing it for all Native children.”