Three little phrases — I love you; hello; thank you — uttered in a young girl’s native tongue and then translated have sparked a furor at a middle school in Wisconsin.
The dust-up began in January when Grade 7 student Miranda Washinawatok, who will turn 13 at the end of March, was reprimanded in class for speaking in Menominee — the language of the Menominee nation — in her classroom at Sacred Heart Catholic School in the small town of Shawno in northeastern Wisconsin, just south of the Menominee Indian Reservation.
Miranda’s teacher reprimanded her after she spoke and translated these phrases to three other students, according to Miranda’s mother, Tanaes Washinawatok, who works for the Menominee Indian Tribe.
When Tanaes asked her daughter what happened, Miranda told her mother that her teacher, Julie Gurta, slammed her hands down on her desk and said she wasn’t supposed to be speaking Menominee because how would she know if Miranda was saying something bad.
Then she reportedly asked Miranda: How would you like it if I spoke Polish and you didn’t understand?
During the next class, another teacher reportedly told Miranda and her class that she didn’t appreciate it that Miranda upset the teacher. “She was singled out,” said her mother in an interview with the Star.
Later that day, Miranda was benched rather than playing in that night’s parent recognition basketball game. When her mother picked her up after practice, Miranda told her mother she had been benched “for attitude issues,” recounts Tanaes.
But when Tanaes Washinawatok asked school officials why her daughter wasn’t allowed to play in the game, she didn’t get a straight answer, she said.
The head coach said he didn’t know anything about the decision. Neither the assistant coach, the teacher nor the principal would tell her who made the decision, Tanaes said.
“I was disappointed the faculty wouldn’t give me clear answers and kept passing the blame back and forth,” she said.
After Washinawatok and a family elder, Richie Plass, who works across the United States on issues of racism, stereotyping and intolerance, (external - login to view) met with school officials and representatives from the Catholic Diocese of Green Bay, a settlement of sorts was ironed out.
Plass, Miranda’s great-uncle, well knows the sting of racism. He was president of the senior class at his high school in 1968 when the principal asked him to be the mascot for the Shawno Indians basketball team. The memory of what happened to him as a mascot (external - login to view) still haunts him. “There is no honour at being laughed at, having food thrown at you and spat at,” he said.
In the current situation, he said, “What’s become apparent to a lot of people in the diocese and the decision-makers especially is how much their staff and people flat-out don’t know when it comes to our culture. With this issue — and we don’t know what happened before now — to me I don’t think it was racist. I think it was ignorance. It’s ignorance and a form of intolerance.”
The Diocese of Green Bay (external - login to view) now plans to begin a cultural and educational sensitivity training program about the native nations within the diocese this spring.
Gurta, director of education Dr. Joseph Bound, assistant girls’ basketball coach Billie Jo DeQuaine and principal Dan Minter were all asked to write letters of apology.
The letters from the coach, principal and director were deeply apologetic, asking for the family’s forgiveness. The principal wrote that plans are in place to boost the cultural awareness and sensitivity of staff.
But according to Tanaes Washinawatok, the letter from Gurta, the teacher who reprimanded Miranda, was not an apology but rather attempted to justify her actions.
Gurta wrote: “In an academic setting, a student must be respectful of all of the other students — language and behaviour that creates a possibility of elitism, or simply excludes other students, can create or increase racial and cultural tensions ... My firm reactions to the behaviours of Miranda and the other two girls were not to single out Miranda or her Native language. Rather, disciplinary actions were taken in response to the disrespectful comments and behaviours exhibited by Miranda over the course of the entire day. Unfortunately, the actions of your daughter were not brought to your attention as quickly as they should have been, and for this I apologize.”
The apology failed on all counts, said Tanaes. Now, she wants the school to fire Gurta, and is asking the director not to renew her contract.
“The teacher’s letter is totally unacceptable,” she said. “It places blame on Miranda, saying there were several occasions of disrespectfulness and rude behaviour. This was all new to me. She had ample opportunity to notify me that this happened. I feel in this 11th hour, when we’re bringing closure to the incident, she wants to take away from the seriousness of her own actions.”
Principal Minter told the Star he had been advised not to speak further on the matter, and the director was not available.
Deacon Ray DuBois, spokesperson for the diocese, acknowled that “the whole situation was handled poorly by the school.”
“It was a wake-up call for us,” he said. “This brought a lot of issues, emotion and anger to the forefront. There’s a lot there we need to work on.”
“I think the Native Americans in this country have gone through very difficult times. I think the Menominee people in particular. As a diocese we’re trying to do everything we can to repair any damage that has been made and build new relationships with the Menominee.”
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