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Riverside teacher, in faux headdress, on leave after mimicking Native Americans in video

 Community members protest outside John W. North High School in Riverside.
Denise Maupin and other community members protest outside John W. North High School in Riverside after a viral video showed a math teacher wearing a fake headdress and mimicking Native Americans during class.
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

A Riverside high school teacher has been placed on leave after a viral video recorded by a student showed her hollering and dancing around a classroom in a fake feathered headdress, sparking outrage from the Native American community, school officials and local politicians.

The video, which was posted online on Wednesday, shows the teacher chanting a mnemonic device — “Sohcahtoa,” often used in math courses to remember trigonometric functions — while stomping around the classroom and making chopping motions. The video has more than 3.7 million views on Twitter and hundreds of reactions on Instagram.

For the record:

5:11 p.m. Oct. 21, 2021An earlier version of this story referred to the Riverside Press-Enterprise as the Riverside Press-Telegram.

The Riverside Unified School District released a statement on Thursday, saying the teacher’s actions “do not represent the values of our district.” During public comments at the school board meeting Thursday night, several people decried the incident’s lack of cultural sensitivity and called the video a racist act. Supt. Renee Hill said the district has launched an investigation into the incident at John W. North High School.

“These behaviors are completely unacceptable and an offensive depiction of the vast and expansive Native American cultures and practices,” the district said in a statement. The district did not release the teacher’s name.

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Laura Boling, president of the Riverside City Teachers Assn., said in a statement that the union was “disappointed” by the behavior in one of its classrooms.

“We care deeply about all our students and do not condone actions that alienate, hurt and threaten Indigenous students’ learning environment,” Boling said.

Dee Dee Manzanares Ybarra, the director of the American Indian Movement‘s Southern California chapter and tribal chair of the Rumšen Am:a Tur:ataj Ohlone, said: “People are upset, people are a little angry with what happened because it’s just so disrespectful to our youth.”

Community members organized a protest Thursday afternoon in response to the video, she said.

Ivette Xochiyotl, an advocate and organizer for indigenous people’s rights, was among the protesters chanting “Whose land? Our land!”

Xochiyotl and several others pointed to a 2012 yearbook photo, which began circulating online, showing a woman who appears to be the same teacher wearing a feathered headdress. The teacher and the school should both apologize, the Riverside resident said.

Sisters Arisbeth and Besibeth Chavez, freshmen at John W. North, stayed after school to join the protest.

“We were shocked, disgusted and disappointed … I didn’t think this would happen where we live,” Besibeth said.

Arisbeth said some of her teachers addressed the video before class, saying the teacher’s actions were inappropriate.

Democratic Assembly members Sabrina Cervantes and Jose Medina, who represent parts of Riverside County, and James C. Ramos, a resident of the San Manuel Indian Reservation in San Bernardino County, released a joint statement Thursday condemning the teacher’s actions. Ramos, a member of the Serrano/Cahuilla tribe, is the first California Native American to be elected to the state Assembly.

“It is damaging and disheartening to see Native American and Indigenous culture represented in such a trite and insensitive way,” the statement said. “We need to ensure that students learn about themselves in positive, accurate and appropriate ways.”

Ybarra and Medina attempted to deliver a letter addressed to Principal Jodi Gonzales in person but were not allowed into the school. The letter demands the teacher’s termination and an apology for the upset Native American student who recorded the teacher.

“We’re tired of being made fun of. We’re not a joke,” Ybarra said. “We’re not a costume.”

She pointed to the importance of culturally sensitive teachers and ethnic studies courses, which help students understand past and present struggles and the contributions of marginalized groups, including Indigenous people.

Recently, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a bill that will require future high school students, starting with the Class of 2030, to take one semester of ethnic studies in order to graduate.

Riverside Unified is among the California school districts that offer ethnic studies classes. The state’s model curriculum, which was approved in March, offers multiple sample lessons on how to discuss Native American studies, including understanding the role of land acknowledgments, U.S. history through a Native American perspective and how symbols and mascots have been used to create inaccurate and stereotypical portrayals of Native Americans.

Akalei Brown, who posted the clips online, said she was left shaking after watching the video. Brown is of Kanaka-Maoli and Taos Pueblo descent.

“I felt it necessary to share this video with the world so they could have a small glimpse into the type of abuses Native children face in U.S. schools every day,” Brown said in a message, noting that holidays such as Halloween, when people often wear insensitive costumes, bring about more reports of traumatic experiences for Native Americans.

“This is reality for Native people in the U.S. and we’re not going to take it sitting down anymore,” Brown said.


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