A Southern California teacher has been removed from the classroom after she was filmed dancing and chanting in a mock Native American headdress before her students while pretending to wave tomahawks and pray to nature gods in what’s being called a “dehumanizing” mockery of Native American culture.
Video of the teacher’s antics at a school in Riverside, east of Los Angeles, was posted on social media on Wednesday. It went viral with the help of civil rights activist Shaun King.
The video shows the teacher repeatedly chanting “SOHCAHTOA,” which is a mnemonic way of remembering the trigonometric functions sine, cosine and tangent. As she chants, she dances around the room and jumps on furniture.
“I am sharing this video because these behaviors can no longer be swept under the rug! As adults, we must stand up for our youth!” said the video’s caption, which identified the student who filmed the video as Native American.
“This student looks indigenous, has a Native first name and identifies as Native American. We need to end discrimination and violence against indigenous youth in schools!” the caption said.
The Riverside Unified School District, in an online statement posted Thursday, confirmed that the woman filmed is one of its teachers. It called her behavior “completely unacceptable and an offensive depiction of the vast and expansive Native American cultures and practices.”
“Her actions do not represent the values of our district. The teacher has been placed on leave while the District conducts an investigation,” the statement said.
Chrissie Castro, chair of the Los Angeles City/County Native American Indian Commission, called the video “dehumanizing” and a contributor to mental health issues among the Native American population. Castro urged the district to do more.
“It’s outrageous. Really, that behavior has no place anywhere and especially in a place of learning where Native American students should feel welcome and accepted and, dare I say, celebrated, and that’s the opposite of what took place, and it’s deeply troubling,” she told HuffPost by phone Thursday.
That behavior has no place anywhere and especially in a place of learning where Native American students should feel welcome and accepted and, dare I say, celebrated.Chrissie Castro, Los Angeles City/County Native American Indian Commission
Castro said she has heard from Native American leaders across the country since the video began to circulate, asking what they can do to help. She stressed the need for California to join other states in requiring educational programs on Native American culture and heritage in schools and recommended that the Riverside school district not just investigate the teacher’s actions but also examine its own role in what took place and consult with local tribes.
“Our young people face the highest level of suicide, and there’s been a lot of research to show that that dehumanization of us ― even for students who say they aren’t offended by it ― the repeated exposure to those kind of images and this kind of behavior actually creates a lower self-image for Native students,” she said. “It’s dehumanizing. It’s making a mockery of our spirituality. The teacher was imitating animal sounds, and it’s the same kind of mockery that we experience with race-based mascots.”
Crystal Echo Hawk, founder and executive director of the nonprofit IllumiNative, which works to increase the visibility of Native Nations and to challenge negative narratives, echoed Castro’s concern about the teacher’s actions being harmful to Native youth and called for schools everywhere to do better.
“This incident underscores the importance of making Native peoples visible in modern society, especially in the classroom,” she said in a statement to HuffPost. “This incident proves there is a need for robust cultural competency training for teachers and staff to ensure Native peoples are valued and respected in classrooms around the country.”
Attempts to reach the teacher for comment on Thursday were not immediately successful.
This article originally appeared on HuffPost and has been updated.