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Indigenous Folks Weigh on Racism in Iowa City and the Iowa City Community School District

Indigenous Community Members of Iowa City

Monday, December 5, 2022

Ruthina Malone, President, ICCSD Board of Education

Laura Gray, Executive Director of Diversity & Cultural Responsiveness, ICCSD

Matt Degner, Superintendent, ICCSD

Bruce Teague, Mayor, City of Iowa City

Chasity Dillard, Chair, Iowa City Truth and Reconciliation Commission

Iowa City Human Rights Commission

Re: Ongoing racial discrimination towards Indigenous Peoples sanctioned by the City of Iowa City and the Iowa City Community School District

Dear Leaders of the City of Iowa City and the Iowa City Community School District,

We, the Indigenous Community Members of Iowa City, are writing to demand change in City and School District policy concerning the treatment of Native American Indigenous Peoples. It is the duty of our schools to educate our children with truth and compassion as well as the duty of this city to stand for justice and end racism. When our children are taught false narratives in school and activities sanctioned by the city it is doing them harm. When they are exposed to disrespectful behavior, that behavior is normalized.

We appreciate that the School District and Iowa City have every intention of providing for all its students and citizens and is not actively seeking to engage in anti-Indigenous activities, but unfortunately, it is. The problem is that a non-Indigenous framework is inadequate for fully understanding the impact of certain beliefs, actions, and behaviors on children within the school system and those that live in Iowa City. Furthermore, it is not just Native children that are harmed by anti-Indigenous racism, all children are wronged by exposure to it. In recognizing that exposure to racism is something that is harmful to all children, it should be clear that the work of rooting out racism is work we should be actively focusing on. Because much of the racism we need to address is the racism of ignorance, not malice, the first steps will involve illuminating instances of racism that might not be recognized as such. White supremacy is effective because it is really good at hiding itself. It has embedded itself in our (American) culture, our language, and our social structures. Deeply entrenched as it may be, white supremacy must be eradicated. Because it harms everyone.

Here is a list of recent accounts of racism within the City and School District:

1. a) Testimony by Eloisa Roach

In the 2019-2020 school year, the first assignment for my American Studies class was to “design a colony.” We were told that it was set in the year 1620 in order to not have to deal with issues of slavery, which is obviously not historically accurate, but the reasoning my teacher gave. When I expressed discomfort with the idea of creating a colony in which we would have to steal Native land in order to create it, my teacher said that the land was already settled and that land theft was not an issue. Again, this is not historically accurate. I decided to advocate against it strongly and was given an alternative assignment.

Throughout the following week as my white and non-Native classmates were working on this assignment, many would loudly make comments about how a solution to deal with “the Indian problem” was to kill them. They would do this only when around me and laugh when I got visibly upset. I did not feel comfortable talking to my teacher about this and these same classmates would continually make derogatory comments that went unaddressed by my teacher throughout the year, even when he was aware of them. I recall frequently hearing my teacher telling students off for talking during his lectures but he never discussed the blatantly discriminatory things they were saying.

I thought that the assignment was confined to my classroom, as my teacher had developed those materials more than 20 years ago, but later that year my friends in other classrooms, including SEJH’s CASTL program also participated. My friends attempted to band together to do an alternative assignment but were unable to due to their teachers. Those friends' parents decided to not get involved so they were required to do the assignment or take a zero on a major assignment. I do not know if this assignment is still being utilized at SEJH, but the ignorance and reluctance to change that it demonstrated are a part of a larger problem.

1. b) Testimony by Eloisa Roach

In American Studies 8th grade, the same class discussed above, during the week we learned about Indigenous peoples of North America, my classmates would loudly and incorrectly imitate traditional/powwow singing. When I told them to stop, as it was incredibly culturally insensitive, my teacher told us both to be quiet. Throughout that week, the same people would mock the ceremonial and cultural songs, without interruption from the teacher. We continued to watch a stereotyped and inaccurate video about the five tribes he decided were relevant and representative of Indigenous people. One of those tribes was my own and I knew that there were many things that he discussed and taught us that were inaccurate or overgeneralized, such as our ceremonial practices and removal history. However, I felt deeply uncomfortable discussing the issues with anyone. This was because when my family and I attempted to reach out to the school admin, they either would say they were working on it and not provide any information about the process, eventually not replying to emails. Other times the admin would respond saying it was out of their hands because they did not oversee the curriculum.

1. c) Testimony by Eloisa Roach

During the 2020-2021 school year, my AP U.S. History teacher began his first lesson with a slideshow describing why colonizers perceive Native Americans as inferior. There was incredibly limited information given on Native peoples, with the primary focus being on colonial perceptions. The very first piece of information offered about Indigenous People was an estimate that there were 2-6 million of us prior to colonization throughout all of the Americas. Most modern sources point out that this number is closer to 60-100 million in North America alone. This type of misinformation about Indigenous people continued throughout the class.

1. d) Testimony by Eloisa Roach

On December 6th, 2022, my teacher used a slur against Inuit people in order to make a derogatory joke about their experience as arctic Indigenous people. When my friends and I called her out on it, she removed the joke but refuted any wrongdoing. Later in that same class, she engaged me in an over 15-minute conversation that lasted until the end of the period about me being overly “defensive.”

2. a) Testimony by Marie Krebs

In October 2019, I signed my son up to play football with the RedZone League here in Iowa City. He was assigned to the Redskins team. Redskin is a racial slur used against Indigenous peoples. I reached out by email and phone to discuss this with someone at the League. I was completely ignored. No one responded. I spent a football season not knowing how to cheer for my son’s football team, sitting through people yelling racial slurs. This month, I was sent a video of a performance at a local school showcasing an act in which students were guided to perform what was supposed to be Native American music and dance. The children had been instructed to drum and chant sounds. Non-Indigenous people playing Indian is a mockery of ceremonial ways. After the colonial invasion, legislation had to be passed in order for these ceremonies to be held by each nation. The American Indian Religious Freedom Act was passed in 1978.

3. a) Testimony by Sikowis Nobiss

On November 16, 2022, I was so excited to see my daughter perform at Shimek Elementary as it concerned the Frybread book that they had been reading, which is about Indigenous culture and food. The illustrator had even come to Iowa City to do a reading for all the Iowa City School District First and Second Graders. As an Indigenous parent with Indigenous children, I was surprised at first as there has never been anything like this in Iowa City since my children have been a part of the system that uplifted our culture like this. I dressed my daughter in her ribbon skirt, braid, and hair ties with pride only to be disappointed and disrespected. I had to watch the children “play Indian'' by enacting our sacred drumming practices while singing gibberish and dancing into the room like they were in a powwow. Immediately after the event was over, I asked the teacher where she got this idea from and she told me that she had Native American friends in Chicago–I didn't even know how to respond as that is a non-answer.

After further investigation, the Shimek Principle, Chris Pisarik confirmed that the teacher had also referenced an outdated book where she found the information she needed to teach the kids how to drum and "powwow dance" (I put it in quotes because there are many types of dances carried out at a powwow). Please see the attached screenshots below of the pages she referenced from the book Moving Within the Circle, by Bryan Burton. The excuse was that the book was written by a Native American person but I have not been able to find able evidence that he is. And, just like all other populations, Indigenous Peoples vary and not everyone is working to make things better for our cause. Just because something is written in a book, it does not mean it is legitimate and/or meant for white folks to dabble in. In fact, I was told by Alicia Velasquez (who is Apache) that the Apache People do not have a friendship dance as it is described in the book--which is the dance that the teacher said she was pulling her information from.

My daughter and Chris Pisarik also confirmed that the children watched two videos (Grand Entry at the Gathering of Nations Powwow and How to Powow Dance for Kids) so they could learn how to dance. Firstly, drumming is sacred and like a prayer. Folks that sit at a grandfather drum need to be in a certain mental state and place in life so they can pray this way. To see children sing gibberish words and smack sticks on a snare drum and some big plastic play drum was hard to watch. The children also mimicked the Grand Entry at a powwow, which is disturbing because all our dances mean something and this was erasing the meaning and cultural importance of these dances. To truly make a point, I ask, 'how would everyone feel if Native kids went up on stage and mocked a catholic mass ceremony?’ Indigenous Peoples face the highest rates of erasure and cultural appropriation in this country.

As a commissioner on the Iowa City Truth and Reconciliation Commission and Executive Director of Great Plains Action Society, I am an expert in matters of racist acts towards Indigenous folks such as tokenization, romanization, Playing Indian, erasure, and violence. In fact, I consulted with the ICCSD Diversity & Cultural Responsiveness Committee on February 16, 2022, and told them I was available to consult. I also told them to buy the book recommended below for teachers. The fact that teachers know that they have access to this committee which has access to Indigenous experts like myself with children at the school in question is upsetting. Are teachers not required to consult with this committee before stepping into the such tricky territory? I find this unbelievable and ask that the demands below be granted.

3. b) Testimony by Sikowis Nobiss

When my son was in preschool or Kindergarten at Shimek Elementary, which is about seven years ago now, I told the teacher that I would take my son out on days that mythologies of Thanksgiving and Columbus might be taught, I also mentioned that I would not be ok with children wearing costumes that mock Indigenous regalia. Every year, I give my kid’s teacher the book Rethinking Columbus: The Next 500 Years so they can teach about Indigenous histories and issues properly. Unfortunately, when I went to pick up my son during the Thanksgiving season, I noticed that the teacher had made a felt board with velcro laminated pieces of paper that had pictures of pilgrims, Indians, tipis, and tomahawks. She was teaching them the false mythology about Thanksgiving after I had told her not to do this with my son present. This is the type of racism that is Insidious and sanctioned by the state and the school system itself and it is what causes continued violence and erasure of my people. I made a complaint but nothing was done about it. Please read the Letter to the Editor that I wrote in 2016 for Little Village.

3. c) Testimony by Sikowis Nobiss

I took a look at my son's Social Studies textbook when he was in fourth grade and it described the building of a city, which I think was either Seattle or San Francisco. The book started with a ship showing up to Shore and building on empty land. Of course, we know this is false and it is another attempt to whitewash and erase the history and Legacy of indigenous peoples on this continent. This is what I would consider, propaganda that is being instilled in our children’s minds so that they will grow up and do the same thing. I complained about this and nothing was done about it.

4. a) Testimony by Alicia and Daniel Velasquez

On November 17, 2022 at Mann Elementary School a tokenizing incident occurred that mocked Indigenous culture. At the end of enacting the book, they played Native American powwow music (with drumming and singing) and the kids were encouraged to move their bodies to music like an interpretive dance. This is problematic because there is a specific way based on long-held cultural and traditional beliefs in how we dance to certain songs and a “white’ interpretation is offensive and, again, taking things into their own hands. The teacher said she sent numerous emails to local Indigenous folks asking for consultation, but this is a problematic answer as the City of Iowa City School District has a Diversity & Cultural Responsiveness Committee that is accessible to all teachers and staff. Furthermore, Sikowis Nobiss, Executive Director, of Great Plains Action Society, had consulted with them months prior on how to better for Indigenous children in the district so they were well aware that consultants are readily available.

End of Testimony


We understand that these events and ongoing behaviors are a result of ignorance due to racism, erasure, whitewashing, and stereotyping, but we are letting the City of Iowa City and The Iowa City School District know that, as of right now, institutionalized racism towards Indigenous Peoples will no longer be tolerated.

By no longer tolerated, we mean that we demand that all teachers and affiliated teaching staff receive the book, Rethinking Columbus: The Next 500 Years. This teaching resource can be used for K-12 and “the new edition has over 100 pp. of new material, including a role-play trial of Columbus, materials on Thanksgiving Day, resources, historical documents, poetry, and more. It will help readers replace murky legends with a better sense of who we are and why we are here -- and celebrates over 500 years of the courageous struggles and lasting wisdom of native peoples.” If this is something that the school board cannot afford, we are willing to go to the truth and reconciliation commission for the funding or to another source in Iowa City.

We also want anti-racism training specifically for understanding Indigenous Peoples and their cultures and how to properly interact with them. We would like this to occur annually for ICCSD staff and teachers as well as for the City of Iowa City staff and supervisors. We would also like to see Iowa City invest in a proper Indigenous Peoples Day celebration in the same way they invest in Juneteenth or Latino Fest. The ICCSD has a Diversity & Cultural Responsiveness Committee and we insist that teachers first ask for guidance before teaching or putting on events concerning Indigenous culture. There are folks like Sikowis Nobiss living within the Iowa City community that have already consulted with the committee to whom they may ask for advice. Furthermore, the Iowa City Truth and Reconciliation Committee was set up to hear from folks like us and it cannot do so if it is continually being undermined by city politics. We would like the City of Iowa City to fast-track the TRC budget so consultants can start the Truth and Reconciliation process that we deserve.

Iowa City Indigenous Community Members

Sikowis Nobiss

Plains Cree/Saulteaux, George Gordon First Nation

Executive Director, Great Plains Action Society

Commissioner, Iowa City Truth and Reconciliation Commission

Eloisa Roach

Shawnee Tribe/sawanooki

Student, City High School

Marie Krebs


Commissioner, Iowa City Truth and Reconciliation Commission

Jessica Engelking

Descendant of White Earth Band of Ojibwe

Representation Director, Great Plains Action Society

Alicia Velasquez

Chiricahua Apache

Owner, House of Dotł'izhi in Iowa City

Daniel Velasquez

Pascua Yaqui

Owner, South Side Street Foods in Iowa City

Excerpt from Moving Within the Circle, by Bryan Burton as referenced in Sikowis Nobiss’ testimony 3. a

Excerpt from Moving Within the Circle, by Bryan Burton as referenced in Sikowis Nobiss’ testimony 3. a

Class project referenced in Eloisa Roach’s testimony 1. a


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