October 04, 2012

"Squaw Bury Short Cake" assignment

A posting by someone named Abbey Thompson caused a stir on Facebook:This is my son's math assignment from Friday. I am at a loss for words, how can a public school distribute things like this in this day & age!!? I thought Lakeland Union High School was making progress in the area of race relations until I saw this. He didn't even know what the word "squaw" meant until now.., thanks to his math teacher.

Chief Short Cake Math Assignment Gaffe Has Lac du Flambeau Members Urging Cultural Sensitivity“What happened after Chief Short Cake Died?” That was the question posed at the top of 17-year-old Noah Archer’s assignment on Friday, September 28. The answer to which was, “Squaw Bury Short Cake.”

His mother, Abbey Thompson, snapped a photo of her son’s completed assignment with her cell phone and uploaded it onto her Facebook page on Sunday, September 30 and it’s drawn quite a response.

Thompson, a member of the Lac du Flambeau Band of Lake Superior Chippewa in Wisconsin, said she’s received messages from people all over the United States and Canada.

“As a white person, I am pissed my tax dollars are being spent to belittle and oppress Native students,” Mary Sharlow says on Facebook. “I am pissed my tax dollars are being spent to promote white privilege. I am pissed LUHS continues to teach racism.”

Thompson was “at a loss for words” when she posted the picture and said she “thought Lakeland Union High School was making progress in the area of race relations until I saw this.”

Richard A. Vesbach, the math teacher who assigned the homework and is in his third year of teaching at LUHS, has written a number of letters apologizing.

“It is with deepest regret and intense humility,” he begins one of the letters, dated October 1 and addressed to Joni Theobald, the Lac du Flambeau Tribe’s education director. In the letter he explains that the assignment was in an outdated book of worksheets from the 1980s he found in the room when he first started teaching. He also says he has discarded the book.

“None of that excuses what has happened and I take full responsibility for my actions,” Vesbach continues. “No one else is to blame but me. As a result, LUHS has appropriately sent me home for the day. I recommended that they not pay me.”
Comment:  Some people tried to claim this wasn't a problem because "squaw" simply means "woman." That may be the word's origin, but it's come to have a negative meaning.

And even without "squaw," the exercise is culturally insensitive. It gives the chief a phony name and makes light of his burial.

Indeed, whenever we focus on Indians, it's almost always about the chief. We treat other Indians as a faceless mass of warriors. Which helps to deny their humanity.

Would we accept other outdated jokes about ethnic groups? For instance:

Q: Why did the farmer plant a black man up to his thigh in his garden?

A: He wanted to see a knee grow. [Negro...get it?]

No, I don't think so. I can't imagine anyone's seeing this joke without quickly removing it from the book. Yet the "squaw" joke is just as bad.

So the s-word isn't the only problem. The whole concept of belittling an ethnic group is offensive. Basically, there's no excuse for using any ethnic "humor" in a workbook of this kind.

For more failed attempts at Native "humor," see Legion "Joke" About Murdering Indians and Topeka Mayor Tells "Rain Dance" Joke.


Unknown said...

Thank you for sharing this.
Since this story hit the news- and I have seen it published as far away as the UK, and in the Huffington Post, etc.- I spent little time reading comments and reaction from people about it.
I have received a lot of supportive comments, AND many ridiculously racist ones as well. A few websites said the incident is "STUPID" and said that I am being too politically correct- and that's putting it nicely. I've seen comments from people like "I'm part Indian and I thought it was funny!" I challenged some of these people to try living in my shoes; try being a Native woman for a day, in today's society.

I've even had backlash from certain members of my own family.

However, I know by bringing this into the spotlight I did the correct thing. If anything it also helped me develop a thicker skin (I am a journalist). Simply put- the teacher sent it home with the student whose parent decided that enough is enough.

Abbey Thompson

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

Whoever did this should be punished. Maybe not put in a punitentiary, but their should be punitive actions.

Okay, that hurt, but it was still better than 'squaw bury short cake".

Rob said...

You did the right thing, Abbey.