In the fall of 2013, Jeanne Eagle Bull Oxendine and her husband James Oxendine conducted a series of media interviews, including with Indian Country Today Media Network, about their stand against the culturally insensitive Thanksgiving curriculum at their children’s school, a stand they believed led to their daughter to unfairly lose her scholarship.
But now officials from Maria Montessori School in San Diego, which gave scholarships to two of the Oxendines’ children in part because of their Native heritage, have filed a $20,000 defamation lawsuit against the Oxendines, as first reported by Brandon Ecoffey of Native Sun News.
In the lawsuit, the school officials argue the news stories led to negative and “malicious” Internet comments as well as hate mail that purposely injured the school’s reputation and held them to “public contempt and ridicule.”
The officials also claim in the lawsuit that the pre-school curriculum was not racist and historically-based even though it included classroom activities that encouraged students dancing around teepees, dressing up as Indians with headbands and multi-colored feathers and giving each other “nature-based” Indian names.
James Oxendine, who is currently deployed overseas with the U.S. Navy, said they have been advised by their lawyer not to comment on the case.
“It was historically accurate. When they built the teepee it was a privilege and an honor to be in the teepee,” said Chris Morris, the attorney representing Maria Montessori. “It just seems like the mention of race in the educational setting is enough to offend someone, and that’s not where we need this country to go. The school should be held up approaching these issues with a high standard.”
However, some Native American school officials and educators stated these pervasive Thanksgiving lessons that ignore the perspective of the Wampanoag (the tribe that met with the Pilgirms), their oral histories as well as the context of colonization are detrimental to children.
Often, lessons about tribal people like Maria Montessori’s are overly romanticized, generic or simply wrong, said Marlette Grant Jackson, Resource Coordinator and Academic Advisor for the Indian Tribal and Educational Personnel Program at Humboldt State University in Arcata, California.
“I personally have problems with people thinking they can ‘assume’ our identities and culture without having to ‘assume’ or live all the tragedies and genocides, without knowing the entire history of why we are now two percent of the U.S. population,” said Grant-Jackson. “They (non-Native students) can’t ‘experience’ being Indian. Would you dress a child as a slave? Why not dress them up in suits and ties so they can experience being Donald Trump?”
Among the disputed facts in the lawsuit, Morris and school officials claim the curriculum was immediately stopped once the Oxendines raised concerns, but the Oxendines say the school officials continued with the curriculum so as not to disappoint families who enjoyed the tradition and suggested the Oxendines simply remove their children from school for the week.
Jeanne Eagle Bull Oxendine previously supplied Indian Country Today Media Network with an email from school officials dated November 8, 2012, in which they tell the parents “it would be best for your children to not attend school during our Thanksgiving festivities.”
Upset by how the school was handling the situation, the Oxendines briefly withdrew their daughter Jada from the school, but when they changed their minds a day later, the school had already re-allocated the scholarship to other students.
The Oxendines believed this may have been retribution for their complaints, but school officials say via the lawsuit that scholarships are in high demand and it was normal procedure.
Morris couldn’t point to any tangible effects on the school, such as a decline in enrollment or funding due to the news stories, but he said the school has been damaged by “being held up as some kind of racist school.”
“(The lawsuit) is a chance to get the school’s side of the story out there,” he said.