My daughter attended a catholic school from pre-k to second grade. Somehow, when reviewing the school, I missed the fact that the school had a Sioux mascot. Once I realized what the situation was, I had a talk with the teacher, then the principal, then the president of the school. I spoke to parents along the way.
I couldn’t find anyone who found it problematic that a catholic girls school in the New Orleans was laying claim to a Sioux identity. I was met by the school community with some awkwardness and a little fear. I asked for a meeting and went to it expecting to defend myself. When I arrived, I realized the school leadership was terrified of the conversation. They explained that the mascot had been around since 1948 and that the Ursuline girls have had that identity since then and it was very important to them. They explained that this would be a hard conversation to have with the Alumnae, and the Alumnae fund the school.
I decided to stay at the school since a lengthy, possibly decade long conversation about cultural appropriation sounded more fruitful than walking away. I launched a multi-year campaign of working this discussion into conversations at birthday parties, assemblies, and parent meetings. Even as I walked out the door of that school (for other, but not totally unrelated reasons), I had not a single ally. There was not one parent, teacher or administrator who would publicly stand with me.
Over the years, I continued to meet with the administration. I continued to not allow my daughter to participate in Sioux activities. Each year I had a discussion with each of her teachers explain why our family requirement to abstain from this cultural norm at the school. I wrote a lot of letters.
My main talking points were that it was immoral and fundamentally un-Christian to be indifferent to the horrors of the genocide committed by white people and specifically white Catholics
I wrote that “If we are to take Christian education seriously, we must ask ourselves the fundamental question “Does this teaching inspire peace and justice”. If the answer is “no”, the teaching does not belong in a Christian school.”
In one meeting, I offered the perspective that we as Catholics, have the skills and obligation take right action. It is within our culture and our faith to evaluate our trespasses, say them aloud, ask forgiveness, and take corrective penitent actions.
The school announced a month ago that at the end of the 2019-2020 school year, they will retire the school mascot. I know this is because of me. When I read the letter, I could see how my own words inspired this action.
It would be very easy for me to feel that this is a small win, but I will take it in differently. Because I decided to not leave my people and instead, to act, future generations of young women will not be encouraged to assume someone else’s identity. They will not be asked defend genocide. Because of me, they have a better story about themselves. Because I stayed and had the conversation, dozens of people will not be able to escape the new information rattling around in their heads about our own history with native people.
That last paragraph was hard to write. As Catholics, we are encouraged to be modest and self-deferential. We don’t often get to take credit. We stay small in the presence of god. We can’t afford to think of ourselves as unimportant. Our only hope of disassembling organized systems of oppression is to believe deeply in our significance.