McKenzie Johnson waited in the hallway with her classmates at Cibola High School in Albuquerque on Halloween. They waited for their teacher to let them in. A student dressed as Pocahontas is walking down the hall. Johnson is already upset.
The AP Literature teacher dressed up and introduced herself to the class as Marie Laveau, known as the New Orleans Voodoo Queen. (Indian Country Today will not name the teacher until the police report is released by the Albuquerque Public Schools. KRQE says there are no charges filed.)
“We were all pretty excited to go into class because it was different from what we normally have,” said the 17-year-old Navajo.
Candles on the desks faintly lit the dark classroom with one bright light, the teacher’s flashlight. As Laveau, she told the students, “Don’t speak unless you’re spoke to and put all of your backpacks near the door.”
The Laveau impersonator said she didn’t know anyone in the class and figured it was role playing for Halloween, Johnson recalled over the phone in mid-November.
Class proceeded with a YouTube video about Laveau’s history followed by a poem read out loud by the teacher. After the reading, Laveau told the students to answer questions about the poem. If an individual answered correctly, they received marshmallows. If the answers was incorrect, the student was given dog food.
With that in mind, no one wanted to volunteer. So students were randomly called on.
The first student didn’t know the answer so he got dog food. He refused to eat it. The student after him was incorrect. Dog food.
The teacher called on the third student, another Native American student in the classroom who Johnson described as “timid and shy.” It was the Native student’s first time being called on in class. She didn’t know the answers so she received dog food and she refused to eat it.
After refusing, the teacher asked her, “Do you like your braids?” The shy student replied, “Yeah, I like my braids.”
The teacher asked the class, “Do you think scissors would do?” She previously held a box cutter in her hand.
Her classmates wondered what was going to happen next and surprised this was even going on in front of them.
“Then she went to up to the shy student, got one of her braids and cut her hair where the hair tie ended. She cut the ends of her hair and she held it in her hand and she just sprinkled it on top of her desk,” said Johnson, a junior at Cibola. “And at that point, everybody was really shocked in class, like gasping, like ‘Oh my gosh. She actually just did that.’”
Class continued with a grammar worksheet.
More students were called on individually with the flashlight. With this worksheet, Johnson remembers some students eating the dog food, some didn’t, and others got marshmallows.
The literature teacher turned her flashlight to Johnson, who wore a Little Red Riding Hood costume completed with a red scratch on her cheek.
Johnson hoped to get her answers right so she wouldn’t have to eat dog food. (She knew it was dog food because she could smell it and the students who ate it immediately spit it out.)
“She said, 'Okay, what are you supposed to be? A bloody Indian?’ And I was, I was in shock. Like you actually said that you actually... Okay, great. So I didn't have time to respond. I was just still in shock and so was everybody else,” Johnson said. “And then she looked around the class because she heard the gasps from everybody and some of the whispers, she said, 'Was that offensive?’ She pointed a flashlight around and then I finally said something like, ‘Yes, that was offensive.’”
Johnson said the teacher spoke to the class again, “She’s like, ‘Well, she is bloody and she is a…” and her voice trailed off.
Class continued with the calling out people based on their costume, especially for the new exchange student who is black. Johnson recalls the teacher asking him, “Are you from the south?” He responded with “no.” And she replied, “Oh no. I think I’ve seen you from the south before. I’m pretty sure I saw you before.”
Friends approached Johnson after class got dismissed five minutes early and asked if she was okay and knew she was “really mad.” The class added to her frustration before class when she saw a non-Native student dressed as a “revealing” Pocahontas. Her face covered in red, yellow and black paint. A rubber-band around her head with a chicken feather.
Johnson first told her Native American club sponsor about the “Halloween stunt.” While she told the sponsor she saw the other student crying and stroking her hair that got cut. Everything was reported to the administrators.
The “highly regarded” teacher was put on paid leave since and continues to be while the incident is being investigated, said Monica Armenta, spokesperson for the Albuquerque Public Schools.
“Albuquerque Public Schools is very concerned about unacceptable behaviors on our campuses. We would like nothing more than to eradicate racism and hate so that our staff and students never have to face discrimination, prejudice and pain,” Armenta wrote in an email to Indian Country Today. “Albuquerque Public Schools is sensitive to the unique needs of our Native American students, in fact, we have an entire department dedicated to the advancement of our Native students. APS is also one of the only school districts in America to offer both Zuni and Navajo language courses in an effort to help preserve the native languages.”
Armenta continued, “...the truth is we don’t have immediate answers.”
“In all fairness, equity is not an issue specific or unique to APS. It’s a societal issue,” she said. “Albuquerque Public Schools is intent on playing an active role in educating our staff and students about the ignorance of hatred, but in all honesty, we don’t at this moment have an answer. We are coming up with a plan to address these issues.”
Navajo Nation Museum Director Irving Nelson says the Cibola situation is an assault.
“I think touching anybody’s hair, cutting anybody’s hair is an assault on the person. Legally, if you cut my hair I’d take you to court,” he said. “Nobody touches another person without their consent.”
Johnson didn’t return to school on Nov. 1 but received flak from her peers the next day. The school sent a letter about the incident to parents on Nov. 2.
The entire incident was surprising to Johnson because the New Mexico teacher was “aware of Native American history” and that developed trust between her and the students.
The teacher made an effort to give the students all the information about Native American history that the American education didn’t include. For example, the students read war documents and the teacher would tell the students this document says this but educate them on how Native Americans were treated badly, genocide happening and their land was taken away.
“I was more in shock than anything because at that point, since we're learning about history and all that, I thought we'd moved on from that because that type of thing, cutting your hair and calling you names, that's how it happened back in boarding school days. And even then in boarding schools didn't happen that long ago,” Johnson said. “It broke trust.”
Avery Denny, an instructor of Navajo Culture and Navajo Holistic Healing at Diné College, agrees with Johnson.
“Traditionally, there’s never a time to cut a hair. Never ever. No scissors or knife. Only when we went to boarding school, the boarding schools cut all the men’s hair. The boy’s hair. That’s where we lost our identity, our true self,” he said.
To Navajos, the hair is part of the Navajo regalia along with the mocassins, jewelry and tsiiyéél, or traditional Navajo bun, according to Denny. It’s also tied to the kinaaldá, or coming-of-age ceremony. Cutting it can affect the person’s mind, mental state and intelligence because it’s connected to your thoughts.
“So to cut a person’s hair even just a little is against our teachings. It’s not right. You have stepped into our boundaries of spiritual belief. It’s like an insult. It our belief, only an evil minded being would cut our hair without our permission,” Denny said. “You violated a person’s personal and physical, spiritual existence.”
Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye demands action from the school district regarding the incident.
“Our Native youths should not have to endure this kind of behavior, especially in the classroom. We will hold the teacher, the school and the district accountable for these actions, and we demand recourse,” Begaye said in a release.
The Albuquerque Journal reported that Chris Eide, spokesperson for the New Mexico Public Education Department, “‘stands with’ Begaye, adding that cultural learning should be integrated into school communities. His statement did not say whether PED would require further action from APS. But the state agency said its Indian Education Department and Language and Culture Bureaus will be providing training on culture and education in schools.”
Some policy changes the parents of Johnson are seeking are mandatory cultural sensitivity training for educators, Native American costumes banned on Halloween, to integrate more Native American readings into the curriculum, and for the school district to be more inclusive of observing days specific to tribes nearby. For example, the neighboring Bernalillo School District that lists the Pueblo Feast Days on their school calendar.
One policy change the parents are focused on is training counselors on the unique issues of Native students. The incident traumatized the teenager to a point where she said she needed to talk to someone, but she wasn’t comfortable talking to a non-Native counselor at the school.
ACLU of New Mexico included these policy changes and more in their 8-page letter to the superintendent, including “broader recognition of Native American Heritage Month” since the school district failed to properly do so.
“Schools should be places where all students feel safe and welcomed, not subject to abuse by teachers entrusted with their education and wellbeing,” said Leon Howard, legal director of ACLU of New Mexico. “APS has an obligation to ensure students are not forced to endure humiliating and harmful experiences like these.”
Johnson and her parents attended the equity and inclusion meeting on Wednesday as suggested by a school board member they met with after the incident. About 30 community members, former and current Cibola students and concerned parents packed the room to show support for the Native students. Each person had one minute to talk. More people waited outside.
Rynelda attended the board meeting and told the committee, “I will not stand for this and my people will not stand for this,” reported KRQE.
Johnson’s mother is still shocked by it all, especially with the 19 Pueblos around the city and four tribes nearby. As a former educator, her trainings included cultural sensitivity training and getting a tour of where her students came from to give her a better understanding of who she is serving. Wednesday’s committee meeting is not the last meeting and she is working to ensure policy changes are made.
“I’m not going to let another child in the district experience this again by making sure that changes need to be made in the system,” she said over the phone. “It has to reach everyone, all the stakeholders in the school site, the administrators, teachers, and students, all need to be culturally-aware.”
(Video courtesy of reporter Antonia Gonzales.Captured at the Board of Education District Equity and Inclusion Committee meeting attended by many concerned students, parents and community members on November 28, 2018 in Albuquerque.)