Manning: This Is a Victory For Us All

Following decades of pleas from Native Americans, a high school in South Dakota, has retired its Native American-themed homecoming festivities.
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After 76 years, Watertown High School in Watertown, South Dakota, has officially retired their Native American themed homecoming activities. This has occurred after decades of protest from the local Native American community, and more recent community engagement strategies orchestrated by the Watertown school administration.

In an interview with Watertown radio station KWAT, Watertown High School Superintendent Dr. Lesli Jutting shared the official news that all Native American references would be dropped from the homecoming festivities. The new homecoming activities at Watertown will have a medieval theme.

A Watertown High School homecoming Coronation in 2001. Courtesy Argus Leader.

“There were some safety concerns,” Jutting told KWAT. When Watertown High School began receiving national scrutiny for their Native American themed homecoming, the school and student body were labeled with blanket generalizations such as “racist.”

 “Also with the recent research on Native American imagery and the harm that it does to Native American students and all students, I thought it was important that we review (the homecoming tradition),” she said.

Background: Watertown’s Native American Themed Homecoming

Watertown High School is the home of the Arrows. The student body is made up of predominantly white students, with much smaller numbers of minority students including Native American students. Because the Arrow imagery of Watertown High School is Native American-themed, Watertown’s homecoming activities have also been Native American themed.

For the past 76 years, the homecoming festivities at Watertown High School commenced with a play, where non-Native students dressed in faux “Indian” attire, and acted as two fictitious and warring Native American tribes, the Kione and the Yiwawa. By the end of the play, the two tribes come together in peace, merging as the Ki-Yi tribe.

Throughout the remainder of homecoming week, known as “Ki-Yi Days,” the Native American theme is consistent. At the end of homecoming week, a princess and chieftain are selected from a court of faux-buckskin and headband-clad students.

The Ki-Yi concept was created in 1939 by Florence Bruhn, an art teacher at the time, who hoped to promote a lesson on togetherness. Little did she know, that she was also propagating myths about Native Americans with the made-up legend, while also creating space for Native American stereotypes to flourish.

The community of Watertown celebrated Ki-Yi Days for nearly four generations, and many members of the community staunchly defended the Ki-Yi tradition.

Controversy and the ‘Savage’ Indian Myth

While seemingly innocent in intent, Watertown’s Ki-Yi legend perpetuated harmful stereotypes about Native Americans. Among those stereotypes, the romanticized Indian of the past, and the warring savage. The warring savage myth, as seen in the fighting between tribes in the opening of the Ki-Yi legend, is a grossly common stereotype of Native Americans, and has been perpetuated by the dominant society for centuries, distorting history, indirectly and sometimes directly creating hostility toward Native American people today.

The Last Ki-Yi Days and homecoming court at Watertown High School in 2015. Courtesy Watertown High School Facebook page.

To be sure, this “savage Indian” myth was propagated, firstly, by early European settlers, as evidenced in widely respected U.S. documents like the Declaration of Independence, which refers to Native Americans as “merciless Indian savages.” This ‘savaging’ of the Indian, then, naturally trickled down into virtually all elements of American society, serving as pervasive anti-Indian propaganda.

The ‘savaging’ of the Indian, essentially functioned for centuries like this: portray good, peaceful, and helpful Indians out to be savages, and then white society sees no harm in killing them and taking their lands. Before long, this myth became accepted by society at large, and misrepresented the reality of the Native American experience and the truth of Native Americans as victims of colonization. The truth of the Native American experience became tragically distorted as white America dominated the way in which Native Americans have been depicted.

Watertown Responds to Native American Protests

While there have been intermittent protests throughout the years against Watertown’s homecoming festivities and resulting small concessions made by the Watertown School District, such as refraining from using the headdress, it wasn’t until the fall of this past academic year that the message was received loud and clear: stereotypical Native American imagery, including Native American-themed plays, activities, and games are disparaging, dehumanizing, they perpetuate stereotypes, and have been empirically proven to cause psychological harm to Native American youth.

In the fall of last year, a change.org petition began circulating widely after Watertown High School posted a photo of white students dressed as “Indians” on their Facebook page during homecoming week. After the Facebook photo received hundreds of shares and enraged comments from Native American people from all throughout the U.S., the photo was taken down, and the Watertown administration began listening more attentively. 

Becky Plumage (Assiniboine), a current graduate student at Washington University and resident of South Dakota, created the change.org petition, and immediately received thousands of signatures. In response to the petition and growing national attention, Watertown High School responded swiftly, organizing meetings amongst the school board, with the public, and by taking calculated steps toward change. As of June 14, the Ki-Yi tradition has officially been retired, and the new homecoming theme will roll out in the fall. 

Plumage recently declared “Victory” via the change.org platform upon learning of Watertown’s homecoming change.

“I am very excited to learn about the changes that have been made to the Watertown High School homecoming traditions,” Plumage told ICTMN. “These changes were long overdue, and so I am thankful for the meaningful actions of the Watertown School Board and superintendent.”

Progress Comes with Courage and Collaboration

As Native American people, we are constantly confronted by stereotypes and offensive representations of who we are. This disturbingly normal element of our experience can often be discouraging, and even overwhelming. Some Native people have resigned to attitudes of mere acceptance, feeling that it is useless to try and change things. We often grow weary of educating the masses about the reality of who we are. 

Yet if there is anything to be learned from the change made at Watertown High School, it is that change is possible, and some folks are in fact willing to listen. Some leaders do respond to Native American concerns with meaningful action. We cannot relent on voicing our concerns, strategically and passionately, on social media and online platforms, in courageous conversations, and with leaders in key positions.

When information was first released to the public that Dr. Lesli Jutting was taking steps to change the Native American themed homecoming, there was, of course, the expected back lash. Backlash against local Native Americans, backlash against some of the Watertown administration and school board, and a roar of support from the white community to keep the tradition. Even still, Jutting held to her word. She acted responsibly and progressively, even though it was an unpopular move in her own community. There is something to be said for this. 

Throughout the process to change the Ki-Yi tradition, Jutting maintained careful communication with community stakeholders, with former Ki-Yi royalty, and a handful of Native American liaisons, including William Mendoza (Lakota), Policy Advisor to President Obama on American Indian education. Jutting also reached out to Native Americans from surrounding tribal communities, and in the spring, she invited Mendoza back to the community to give talks to community stakeholders and to the Watertown student body about the harms of stereotypical Native American imagery. There is something to be said for this, too, and much to be learned.

Hopefully, other schools and national organizations might be inspired by the courageous moves made by Superintendent Jutting and the Watertown school board — schools like Red Clay High School in Wilmington, Delaware, home of the Redskins, where they stubbornly defend their disparaging name, citing the controversial Washington Post poll, and schools like Sisseton High School in South Dakota, home of the Redmen, and a similarly disparaging homecoming tradition where white students dress as Indians.

What Watertown High School and Superintendent Jutting have done with their progressive and intrepid change, is they have proven that school traditions and athletic traditions, no matter how beloved, can and should change, especially when they are disparaging to a racial group, and especially when they cause harm. Space is then created, at long last, for Native American communities to tell our own stories and finally represent ourselves, accurately, and honorably.

Sarah Sunshine Manning

Sarah Sunshine Manning (Shoshone-Paiute, Chippewa-Cree) is a mother, educator, activist, and an advocate for youth. Follow her at @SarahSunshineM.