Wisconsin Students Stage Walkout, Cite Racial Issues

About 15 students staged a walkout from Bayfield High School in Wisconsin June 3 citing racial intolerance and insensitivity toward Native Americans.

About 15 students staged a walkout from Bayfield High School in Wisconsin on Monday, June 3 citing racial intolerance and insensitivity toward Native Americans, reported the Duluth News Tribune.

The Tribune says the students were inspired by high school valedictorian, Victoria Gokee-Rindal, a member of the Red Cliff Ojibwe band. In her commencement speech on Saturday, June 1, she said she couldn’t stay silent about issues between Native students and school officials any longer. One specific conflict involves whether students can smudge—a tradition using smoke to purify the body.

“Why is it that Native students of the Bayfield School District are made to feel like they have to check their Indian-ness at the door?” Gokee-Rindal asked, according to a written text of her speech. “Why is it that a fellow student has been made to feel inferior because of her individual right and request to be allowed to practice her culture in the way she has been taught? Why is it that teachers who support students in speaking their mind, and encourage their interest in their culture, are being targeted and disrespected for taking a stance for student rights?”

Bayfield School District superintendent David Aslyn says the topic of smudging is something the school is currently in talks with the Red Cliff community over. He addressed claims that were made about asking students to bathe after smudging, saying that wasn’t the case.

“I know there were some claims made on Facebook that we didn’t let students smudge before entering school. If they smudge that’s their business and we certainly didn’t make anybody bathe,” he told Indian Country Today Media Network. “We have some people who are allergic to the sweetgrass family of plants, but the school district is supportive of smudging, we just can’t have it in the building. If they need to smudge in school, and can use an alternative [to sweetgrass]… Nobody wants to stop anyone from smudging.”

Gokee-Rindal, told Northland News Center, that there are signs posted in the school that say no smudging. “It’s something that helps us feel better as Native people, it’s almost like a cleansing for the body,” she added.

The valedictorian feels her speech may have been the catalyst to the social media organization of the walk out, which was attended by some 15 students—all with parental permission. They walked to the Red Cliff Tribal Center, where they were joined by other tribal members.

“Our culture is being pushed under the rug. We’re being told we can’t smudge when people in federal prisons can smudge,” Breanna Deregon, a student involved in the walk out, told Northland News.

While school officials thought smudging was the reason for the walk out, Aslyn was later told that it wasn’t the only reason. With a K-12 district of 450 students that are more than 75 percent Native American, maybe the issue goes deeper.

Northland News Center spoke to Nick Vanderpuy, a former substitute teacher at Bayfield, who said he witnessed several acts of discrimination toward Native students.

“Frankly, I don’t think I’d go back to work there even if they paid me triple, I’m disgusted by the way that school operates,” he said.

Gokee-Rindal, who did not take part in the walk out, does hope it’ll bring about some needed changes in the community.

“I would like to see a change where we can be ourselves and our culture can be integrated into the school. We’re almost 80 percent of the school, it should reflect in our teachers and in the teachings that happen around the school,” she told Northland News.

Aslyn said the first meeting with the Elder Council, which will be a standing committee of the school board, was held June 5. “For issues that involve cultural sensitivity that group will be in place to give advice to the school district to meet the needs of our Native students and families,” he said.