School changes course on Native American powwow and dress-up day amid backlash: 'No to redface'

Elena Sheppard
Wellness Editor
Apryl Arthurs and her 5-year-old son are members of the Mohawk tribe. (Photo: Apryl Arthurs)

When Alabama mom Apryl Arthurs received a note from her son’s kindergarten teacher saying the children would celebrate Thanksgiving at school by holding a “powwow,” and were encouraged to “dress in Native American attire,” she felt, as she tells Yahoo Lifestyle, “trepidation.”

As a member of the Mohawk tribe, Arthurs says that to her, the dress-up element immediately raised red flags. When she responded to her son’s teacher expressing her concerns and asking for more specifics, the teacher wrote back saying the day would include, “head dress and tee pee making.”

Arthurs, who grew up on Mohawk territory in Ontario, Canada, tells Yahoo Lifestyle, “Even I know that local [Alabama] tribes didn’t use teepees or headdresses.” She says the teacher was respectful of her concerns, saying that other arrangements could be made for Arthurs’ son that day, but she still replied expressing that the “activities perpetuate harmful pan Indian stereotypes.” Her concerns extended beyond her son’s participation, she explained, to “concerns about the effects of normalizing this level of redface, and how that will impact his relationship with other students.” The entire exchange was posted on Tumblr by a friend of Arthurs.

“I need to be really clear on this point,” Arthurs told local news station WAFF. “Dressing up as an indigenous person when you’re not native is racist. It doesn’t matter how young they are, it doesn’t matter what their intent is, dressing up to be native for the day is racist.”

Ultimately, Arthurs took her concerns to the school principal but received a reply back reportedly saying, “I see no evidence that there is any level of racism in this activity.”

According to the school, the powwow was canceled. “It would be offensive for children to 'act this out' so that NEVER OCCURRED,” wrote Tim Hall, Madison County Schools Spokesperson, in an email to Yahoo Lifestyle. He explained that the children instead experienced a virtual reality powwow that was “conducted by fully sanctioned Native American leaders.”

Hall says the school “course corrected,” after hearing Arthurs concerns. “Once the principal learned of the concerns, he sent a letter home to every parent involved stating children should not wear costumes.  We took immediate action and informed parents of this redirection of the program,” Hall says.

Arthurs says she never received that letter and that her son did not attend school on the day the powwow was scheduled to take place.

Stan Long, who is on the Alabama Indian Affairs Commission and is mixed-blood Cherokee, tells Yahoo Lifestyle what he sees happening is “non-Indians attempting to honor the American Indian with no knowledge of history or culture.” Long adds that he doesn’t find what took place racist, just ignorant.

“I have to believe the intent was to honor the American Indian,” he says. “I also believe no forethought was given as to the appropriateness of a powwow or the historical impact the European influence had on the decimation of the American Indian. I would hope this becomes an opportunity for our educators to contact local Indians to assist with planning during November’s activities.” November is also Native American History Month.

The school reversed course after complaints from a mother of a kindergartner. (Photo: Apryl Arthurs)

Appropriating native dress is a topic that has become increasingly brought to light as offensive. In 2012, Victoria’s Secret and Karlie Kloss both issued apologies after extreme backlash when the model walked in the company’s fashion show sporting a headdress. Hilary Duff and then-boyfriend Jason Walsh also issued apologies after dressing as a sexy pilgrim and Native American for Halloween in 2016.

Eventually, Arthurs says, she was contacted by Kerrie Bass, the supervisor of federal programs for the Madison County School District, and Becky Jones, director of Indian Education for the district. She noted they were “super supportive,” and “agree the information and activities need updating.” Neither Jones nor Bass replied to Yahoo Lifestyle’s request for comment.

Arthurs says she’s since been invited by them to join a group that will help write up supplemental guidelines for native educating that would be implemented in October 2020.

“No to redface,” Arthurs says. “Yes to learning about local Nations.”

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