Riverside teacher who mimicked Native Americans during math lesson is fired

A crowd of people raise their fists, with one holding a sign that says "Protect Indigenous children."
Denise Maupin and other community members protest outside John W. North High School in Riverside on Oct. 21 after a viral video showed a math teacher wearing a faux headdress and mimicking Native Americans during class.
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

A Riverside high school teacher who was recorded mimicking Native Americans by wearing a faux headdress and chanting during a math lesson in October was fired last week after months of protest, Native American advocates said.

Community members representing local tribes and some from out of state spoke at last week’s Riverside school board meeting and cheered when the board announced that an unnamed employee had been fired after a 4-1 vote in closed session. Riverside Unified School District officials would not confirm the identity of the fired teacher.

The teacher has the right to a hearing in front of a state commission and may appeal the decision, which could take up to three years, district spokesperson Diana Meza said.

The district had previously said the teacher at John W. North High School was placed on leave while it investigated the incident.

“It was a victory for us, because it does show our voices were heard,” said Dee Dee Manzanares Ybarra, the director of the American Indian Movement‘s Southern California chapter and chair of the Rumšen Am:a Tur:ataj Ohlone tribe, who attended school board meetings with other activists since the video became public.


“It was important to not have this person around children anymore, because of what she’s done,” Ybarra said, calling the teacher’s actions “a mockery of our people.”

The video of the teacher shows her chanting a mnemonic device — “sohcahtoa,” often used to help students remember trigonometric functions — while stomping around the classroom, standing on desks, making chopping motions and, at one point, pretending to pray.

Native American activist Akalei Brown originally posted the video after receiving it from the student who recorded it. The video amassed more than 3 million views on Twitter and hundreds of thousands of interactions on Instagram.

Immediately after the video went public, Native American community members organized protests at the school, demanding the firing of the teacher and an apology.

Since then, district officials have met with local tribal councils and parents to make some curriculum and policy changes.

“Personally, it’s not about the individual teacher, whose behavior was clearly outrageous — it’s about these types of microaggressions that happen to Native and first peoples in this region that happen daily,” said Mary Valdemar, co-chair of the Ethnic Studies Inland Empire Coalition.

Any changes to a curriculum should be done with the involvement of tribes who first lived on the land, Valdemar said.

Inspired by the classroom incident, Assembly Member James Ramos (D-Highland), a resident of the San Manuel Indian Reservation and a member of the Serrano/Cahuilla tribe, said last month that he would introduce a bill to encourage school districts to collaborate with tribes in improving their curricula.

“So few people understand the diversity of California’s first people,” Ramos said. “They speak different languages, use different musical instruments, practice different customs and traditions. Few know many tribes were wiped out or almost eliminated during the 1800s.”

After the school board vote was announced, Riverside schools Supt. Renee Hill said at the meeting that curricula would change to “ensure proper representation of the region’s first people and Native Americans,” which drew further applause from the crowd.

“Our leadership is working to ensure accountability,” Hill said.

In previous school board meetings, Hill said the district would begin work toward creating a land acknowledgment.

Ybarra and Valdemar are still calling on the district and teacher to issue a formal apology for the incident.