One of the longest-running high school parades in the United States has been criticized by the ACLU and others for its portrayal of Native Americans.
“This is racism, 21st century racism," says Meg Singer, a Helena resident and member of the Navajo Nation.
She says Helena High School students at the Vigilante Day Parade last Friday dressed in Hollywood-style Native American costumes with short skirts and other scantily-clad clothing.
Singer calls this redface, a term, like blackface, denoting when white people appropriate parts of another culture.
“And redface, along with blackface, is steeped in a lot of stereotypes that have been intentionally created to dehumanize people,” she says.
But Nicole Geiszler, a former student at Helena High School, disagrees.
“Nothing is racial anymore. It’s just people getting offended because you have some clothing that is portraying almost exactly what they wore, I mean, they were trying to get as close as they could," she says.
Geiszler says the students are like actors in a theater.
“You don’t sit there and call someone racist because they put on an outfit to play a part,” she says.
But Meg Singer says there are darker undertones.
“One in three native women will be raped. And so when I see these stereotypical costumes, which are essentially dehumanizing me, as a native woman, how can I expect to be safe when I’m being portrayed like that?” she says.
Earlier this week, Singer – who works for the ACLU of Montana but stresses her response to the float was personal – posted a video of it on Facebook. That video then went viral.
And on Thursday, The ACLU of Montana, along with eight other organizations, released a statement asking the Helena School District to review and update their float approval policy. The district did not respond to interview requests from Montana Public Radio.
Juanita Twoteeth Yarns is a former student at Helena High School and she says she doesn’t want to see any changes to the 93-year-old parade.
“Because I feel if they make any changes, it’s going to be racist if they want to make only Native Americans do Native American floats because I believe even the white kids or whoever want to learn about the Native American stuff,” she says.
In an interview with the Helena Independent Record, Helena school superintendent Jack Copps said there were cultural guidelines in place to prevent the misrepresentation of Native American culture during the parade.
The float depicted the Madison Buffalo Jump, where numerous Native American tribes hunted bison by herding them over a cliff.
However, Copps told the Independent Record he wasn’t sure what the screening process for the float was, and didn’t see it firsthand on Friday.
But Native American activist Meg Singer did, and she says her Facebook post about it has received a lot of backlash.
“I’ve been a meme now, which has also been drenched in racism, telling me I’d have to put down my pint of beer and smoke the peace pipe,” she says.
But Singer hopes the post is also a catalyst for change. On Monday the Helena school district said they would review their guidelines for the parade.