Helena Public Schools is facing criticism for a Vigilante Parade float that some say promoted offensive stereotypes about Native Americans.
Featuring 92 floats created by students from Helena and Capital high schools and screened by school district officials, the annual parade was held Friday afternoon in downtown Helena. Videos of one of the floats were shared on social media within hours, which led to a robust debate about whether or not it was offensive.
The float was supposed to portray the Madison Buffalo Jump in Three Forks, where Native Americans strategically hunted by herding buffalo over a cliff for 2,000 years. It included scantily clad girls in "squaw" outfits, teepees with inaccurate symbols, and students making "whooping" noises.
One of the videos posted on Facebook was viewed more than 100,000 times.
The school district's Superintendent Jack Copps and Assistant Superintendent Greg Upham both said each float is subject to a series of guidelines and has to be approved by Amanda Walking Child, the Indian Education Director.
On Monday, neither Copps nor Upham said the float was racist or offensive, but said the guidelines in place are supposed to prevent a misrepresentation of Native American culture. Copps said he’d received a few complaints from community members, but also heard from Native American people who didn’t think the float was offensive.
“We have Native Americans who did not view that float as offensive,” he said. “What we need to do is make sure we have a full appreciation of what those different views are.”
Copps said the district is responsible for making sure all floats respect and appreciate the Native American culture, but he wasn’t sure what the screening process was and didn’t see the float in person on Friday.
Upham provided the guidelines for students, which include cultural guidelines. It asks students not to stereotypically represent Native Americans and provides examples, such as painted faces and black wigs, inappropriate and offensive costumes, or dancing and drumming in a Hollywood style.
Students are allowed to pick their own theme, although a list of options is provided. The list of 21 themes under the category titled “American Indian” includes a buffalo jump. Since it was already an approved theme, students only had to get approval from Walking Child.
Walking Child said students are not given enough time to prepare their floats, and she was not given enough time to approve them. When she reviewed the buffalo jump float in question, she said students were not in costume. She asked what they would be wearing, and they said regular clothes. She also reminded them not to wear face paint or feathers.
“I said, 'well tell me your theme,'” Walking Child said. “They said ‘just having buffalos jump off the jump.’”
After Walking Child saw the float on the day of the parade, she said the clothes worn by female students were offensive.
“I didn’t agree with the females in their short skirts. I think that’s wrong,” she said.
The teepee also wasn’t on the float when Walking Child had to approve it. She said the students were likely short on time and may have drawn symbols without doing research.
“If there’s a process put in place with this parade, to where students and myself are prepared ahead of time, there could be proper education and not a last-minute thing,” she said.
Meg Singer of Helena posted the original video of the float, which was shared more than 1,000 times. She said she’s since received threatening and angry messages from people who disagree with her criticism of the portrayal. Some called her names or insulted her based on her character and gender.
“There’s something really problematic about that response,” she said.
Singer said that while it’s important to hold the school district accountable, the float is a good way to start a conversation about what racism looks like. She said that after 93 years, the parade is an institution that makes racism difficult to dismantle.
“All I did was simply critique that institution through a racial lens,” Singer said. “And my own lens being a Native person.”
Singer said the float had several issues. In addition to portraying stereotypes she calls hurtful, she said the guidelines that tell students how they can and cannot represent Native Americans doesn’t do a sufficient job of explaining why.
“It’s a larger part of a system of historical oppression,” she said. “I’m not blaming the kids. I’m saying we can do better.”
And when a person says something is racist toward them, it becomes their own responsibility to be an educator, she said. Native Americans make up 10 percent of the state population, but have been made responsible for educating the entire state, she said.
“It falls on the responsibility of Native people,” she said. “Ten percent of people have to be the checks and balances for the other 90 percent. We’re all involved.”