Norco High School hosts “Cowboys and Indians” dress up event

Norco High School hosts “Cowboys and Indians” dress up event

(NORCO, CA) During my experience as a journalist, I have written various articles about the power of embracing diversity, experiencing cultural awareness, and overcoming prejudices. However, I can honestly say that until recently, I myself had little to no experience with what it means to be persecuted for my heritage. I heard the stories, I read the news, but experiencing it firsthand changed my life forever.

Let me begin first by saying that I am of European descent, but somewhere along the path, Native American genes trickled into the family tree. You couldn’t tell by my blonde hair, blue eyes, and light skin, but the stories of my relatives go beyond the European frontier and into the heart of the Native American tribe called the Chickasaw.

I grew up feeling proud to be Native American. As a child, I watched Pocahontas and dreamed about wondering aimlessly in the American heartlands, content with the fullness of nature. My heart was enlightened by familial tales, and empowered by the powerful history that my tribe has. When I look back at my ancestors, all I remember is their resilience, strength, and power that they owned during their darkest days.

My school holds an annual spirit-themed week, in which students are encouraged to dress up according to the theme. The theme for the 2014-2015 year is “A Western Welcome”, which is understandable, considering my town is noted as “Horsetown U.S.A.”. However, on Thursday, August 21st, 2014, they are asking students to participate in a “Cowboys and Indians” dress-up day.

Wait, what?! For one, the school is incapable of coining the correct historical term, yet historical accuracy is a key concept stressed in class. If my school was referring to the people from the subcontinent bordering Pakistan and Sri Lanka, then they’d be correct. But, if the school is referring to the indigenous people that Spaniard Christopher Columbus and his men ruthlessly killed, then the correct term is “Native American.”

My family has origins in the Chickasaw tribe, a powerful, passionate and innovative tribe. Before settlers came to America, there were approximately fifty to one hundred million Native Americans flourishing in their tribal societies. After the Indian Removal Act in the 1800s and the Trail of Tears, 2, 500 members of my tribe were beaten, starved, or exhausted to death.

The Native Americans that were fortunate enough to survive the mass killings that are physically unbearable. Native Americans, though they were in America first, were forced to live on tribal reservations. Today, the living conditions are comparable to a third world country, according to research by National Relief Charities. 28.2% of Native Americans live below the line of poverty, barely making enough money to survive. There are 90,000 homeless Native Americans on tribal reservations, due to the lack of housing. Less than 50% of the available housing is connected to a sewer, so you could imagine what other ways they are forced to deal with their waste. American Indians are subjected to racism, depression, and prejudices in their attempts to find opportunities. They are 80% more likely to commit suicide - more than twice the national rate.

            That’s something the Western movies won’t tell you.

While the terrible mass killings of Native Americans happened centuries ago, the attitudes behind it still prevail. In fashion culture, people glamorize the 'boho Indian' look; wearing feathers, hippie headbands, and tribal items. However, what many people fail to realize is that Native American dress is a deeply sacred and religious act. The headdresses are huge elements of a spiritual ritual. You wouldn't have a 'Dress like Jesus Day' or 'Dress like Buddha Day'; so why are you glorifying the misuse of deeply personal and religious practices? We live in a society where Native Americans are not even correctly named. Columbus thought he arrived in India, which is why he called the indigenous people "Indians." Because of our cultural ignorance, we have prolonged the incorrect name. They were here first, and honestly, we don't want to admit it.

I'm not the only one that takes offense to this. In Indiana, there are 4 high schools whose mascot is the "Redskins", and they have been taken to court. In Indio,California, a school with an Arab mascot has been taken to court in hopes of changing it.

The bottom line? Attempts to target a racial or ethnic group is racism, and it is sickening that it occurs at a school, where we are supposed to learn how to stand up against what our forefathers did to other people.

0.40% of my school’s population is American Indian. On the contrary, 49.50% of the student population is Caucasian, and 42.30% is Hispanic or Latino. By having this spirit day, they are literally targeting and belittling a minority group, which I would never expect at a public high school. If my school cares about the individual student, as it claims it does, I would assume that they wouldn't even run the risk of offending a student through racial slurs.

The school district discipline policy threatens suspension if students were to make racial slurs, yet this event is a racial slur in itself. In the California Education Code, Section 51500-51501, it states: "A teacher shall not give instruction and a school district shall not sponsor any activity that promotes a discriminatory bias on the basis of race or ethnicity, gender, religion, disability, nationality, or sexual orientation or because of  a characteristic listed in Section 212." Yet, the Associated Student Body personally grades students by their participation in dress-up activities. Students who participate in ASB are thereby forced to indifferently promote genocide.

Genocide should not be romanticized. We wouldn't have a "Dress Like a German and a Jew Day", because we know that the combination of both symbolizes one of the most heartbreaking events in history. Yet, we are promoting one of the greatest genocides that ever occurred, and it happened in our own soil! America is a great country full of many opportunities, but we should never be proud of our past of annihilating almost an entire race, and forcing them to live in unbearable conditions. In fact, in the book "Adolph Hitler" by John Toland reveals that "Hitler's concept of concentration camps as well as the practicality of genocide owned much, so he claimed, to his studies of English and United States history."

America has contributed so much to society - advances in politics, science, technology, arts, and literature...why are we only proud of the terrible things?

Let's not forget what a day like this promotes: violence. Western movies and pop culture glamorize cowboys as reckless shooters, fistfighters in bar scenes, and killers of Native Americans. I wouldn't ever imagine a high school who dedicates countless policies, money, and programs to ensure a safe school, would hypocritically promote violence - and justify it as a way to promote school spirit! We all mourn and grieve over victims of school shootings, yet you are promoting guns and violence associated with the cowboy era.

I would never expect a day like this to come in America, where democracy reigns over injustice; and opportunities are being opened daily. Look on the news: people all around the world are being murdered, beaten, and bruised because of their skin color, religious identity, and other personal preferences. Although you may think this is an extreme measure, it begins with activities like this. Once we desensitize history, we allow it to occur again. Are we going to become like third-world countries, who literally kill their neighbors out of hatred and intolerance? Look in the news, and see where cultural unawareness has taken society. Do we want to follow in their footsteps, or promote democracy and dignity for all people?

There are plenty of alternatives that are less offensive; and achieve the same goal of welcoming the new and returning students. Crazy Hair Day, Twin Day, and School Color Day (blue and white) are all events that the student population have been excited about, without the unnecessary racial stereotypes.

Ultimately, oppression starts and stops with us. We have the choice to break the cycle of violence, hatred, and indifference by taking a stand for causes greater than our own. Norco High School can either be a school of intolerance and lethargy, or one that truly encourages students to become global, informed citizens.

Promoting human dignity is a cause I am passionate about, and I will not tolerate remaining silent while my own school violates human rights before my eyes. If you stand with me, help me end this event. I have taken my points to the school administration, and they have turned a blind eye to my cause. I need your help. If you feel as strongly as I do about this subject, please lobby the principal of my high school by calling 951-736-3241.  Together, we can change the future by remembering our history and standing together against injustice.

Julia Schemmer, 16, lives in "Horsetown U.S.A" where she participates in several AP courses, nineteen clubs, musical theater and active community service. She loves Jesus, coffee, classic literature, and life in general. After high school, she wants to pursue being an international human rights lawyer.

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