Indigenous parents, students call out Iowa City schools, Iowa City for racism

Iowa City Human Rights Commission documents from Jan. 23 include testimonies from multiple people who claim they, or their child, experienced discrimination, or inaccurate descriptions of Indigenous people in the school district and city.


Grace Kreber

The Iowa City Community School District sign in Iowa City is seen on Tuesday, Sept. 13, 2022.

Kate Perez, News Editor

Dissatisfaction with the treatment of Indigenous peoples in Iowa City and the Iowa City Community School District has come to light after multiple parents wrote a letter detailing their negative experiences in the city and school district. 

A letter addressed to members of the Iowa City Community School District and the Iowa City government that detailed experiences people had with cultural appropriation, racism, and discrimination toward Indigenous people was included in the packet for the Human Rights Commission’s meeting Tuesday. 

Six authors of the letter, who titled themselves “Iowa City Indigenous Community Members,” demanded change in both the city and school district surrounding the treatment of Indigenous people. 

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,” it states. “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.” 

The letter states that despite the school district and city’s intention to avoid anti-Indigenous activities, the structure of the current methods of teaching, which the group describes as a “non-Indigenous framework,” does not fully allow people to understand the influence of their beliefs and actions on children and people in the city and school district. 

Additionally, this exposure to “anti-Indigenous racism” will hurt all children, the letter states.

“Because much of the racism we need to address is racism of ignorance, not malice and a first step will involve illuminating instances of racism that might not be recognized as such,” the letter states.  

Included in the letter are nine testimonies describing different negative experiences those in the group have had in the Iowa City Community School District and in Iowa City.

Iowa City Community School District curriculum faces backlash

One testimony, written by Eloisa Roach, a member of the Shawnee Tribe and an Iowa City City High School student, states that during her time as a student at South East Junior High School in 2019, she was expected to design a colony which she describes as a historically inaccurate assignment. 

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,” Roach wrote. “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.”

Roach goes on to describe how she received an alternative assignment after repeatedly explaining her problems with the assignment, but endured classmates who said the solution to the colony problem would be to kill the Indigenous people in the area at the time. 

“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,” she wrote. “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.”

In the same class, Roach wrote she repeatedly experienced discrimination in various forms during the week they learned about Indigenous peoples of North America, including: 

  • Classmates loudly and “incorrectly imitating traditional/powwow singing.” 
  • People mocking ceremonial and cultural songs without interruption from the teacher. 
  • Watching a “stereotyped and inaccurate video” about five Indigenous tribes with overgeneralized information.

Parents upset with Iowa City schools elementary school 

Sikowis Nobiss, member of Plains Cree/Saulteaux of the George Gordon First Nation, wrote in a testimony that she was recently upset by a performance at Shimek Elementary School surrounding Indigenous culture.

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,” Nobiss wrote. 

After the event, Nobiss, also a commissioner on the Iowa City Truth and Reconciliation Commission and executive director of Great Plains Action Society, discovered the performance was inspired by a book that advocates students to “drum, sing whatever came to mind and dance”. It was also inspired by a video of a powwow the children watched in class. 

“Firstly, drumming is sacred and like a prayer. Folks that sit 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,” Nobiss wrote.

Nobiss was troubled by the dancing and drumming because she felt it was erasing the meaning and cultural importance of the dances. Nobiss added that she offered to be a consultant on Indigenous questions before the performance for the school district and the district’s Diversity and Cultural Responsiveness Committee. 

Additionally, Nobiss detailed an experience — also at Shimek Elementary School — in the letter in which she told her son’s teacher to not teach about Thanksgiving and Columbus with him present, as she planned to pull him out of class. 

However, when Nobiss picked up her son around Thanksgiving time, she realized the teacher had made a board with pictures of “pilgrims, Indians, tipis, and tomahawks” on them. 

“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,” she wrote.

Nobiss’s final testimony surrounded her son’s fourth-grade social studies textbook, which began with a depiction of a ship arriving at a shore and then building on already empty land that was there. 

“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,” Nobiss wrote. “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.”

Other Iowa City Community School District parents have found problems with programs put on at elementary schools. 

Alicia Velasquez, a member of Chiricahua Apache and owner of the House of Dotł’izhi in Iowa City, and Daniel Velasquez, a member of Pascua Yaqui and the owner of South Side Street Foods in Iowa City, wrote about a November 2022 experience at Mann Elementary School.

At the end of the program, the school played powwow music that contained drumming and singing, with the children being “encouraged to move their bodies to music like an interpretive dance,” Alicia Velasquez and Daniel Velasquez wrote.

“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,” they wrote. 

Additionally, Alicia Velasquez and Daniel Velasquez wrote they were upset after the teacher in charge of the program said she sent emails to local Indigenous people seeking consultation, but Nobiss was not consulted. 

Parent troubled by Iowa City football team name

Marie Krebs, a member of Apache and commissioner of the Iowa City Truth and Reconciliation Commission, wrote a testimony about her experience signing up her son to play football in Iowa City’s RedZone League in 2019.

“He was assigned to the Redskins team. Redskin is a racial slur used against Indigenous peoples,” Krebs wrote. “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.” 

Krebs also wrote in her testimony that she did not agree with the performances at various elementary schools in late 2022 that Nobiss and the Velasquez family detailed.

“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,” she wrote.

The letter ends with a call to action for the city and the Iowa City Community School District to recognize the problems are the result of ignorance and to change in the following ways: 

  • All teachers and affiliated teaching staff receive the book, Rethinking Columbus: The Next 500 Years, which they say will help the school district more accurately teach Indigenous history.
  • Conduct annual anti-racism training for the Iowa City Community School District staff and teachers and City of Iowa City staff and supervisors designed for understanding Indigenous people 
  • Iowa City to invest in an Indigenous Peoples Day celebration similar to the Iowa City Latino Fest or Juneteenth

The letter was supported by a different letter written by the Iowa City Ad Hoc Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which recommended the City of Iowa City and the Iowa City Community School District honor the requests made by the community members.

The Commission also recommends that City officials and ICCSD leaders meet with the letter writers for more collaboration on how best to execute these actions, so as to include input from Indigenous community members moving forward,” the Ad Hoc Truth and Reconciliation Commission letter stated.

The Daily Iowan reached out to the Iowa City Community School District and the City of Iowa City for a comment but did not receive an immediate response as of Tuesday night.