A Montana high school is investigating a video that has offended some community members for its depiction of Native Americans.
A fair-skinned girl with braided hair and a feather headband yanks back her arms like she’s shooting a bow and arrow. She’s in a red skirt, something that’s come to symbolize missing and murdered indigenous people and looks like she’s on the hunt. Then something hits her. Students shout, ‘bang,’ and she falls into a bed of snow, closing her eyes.
“When I first saw it, it was pretty shocking to see,” says Heart Butte School Superintendent Mike Tatsey after he saw the video made by students at rival school, Valier.
Valier students made the video to drum up excitement about their homecoming game against Heart Butte High School, the upper branch of a K-12 system that’s on the Blackfeet Reservation and is all-Native, except for two students. Compare that to Valier, which is just outside the Reservation and majority-white.
Tatsey, an enrolled member of the Blackfeet Tribe, says the two schools have always had a healthy rivalry but this goes too far.
“This puts up a barrier. A big barrier. And raises attention so that that rivalry becomes unhealthy,” Tatsey says.
Heart Butte canceled a volleyball match against Valier this week, following the controversy, according to reporting by the Great Falls Tribune.
Tatsey says his students want to work on tearing that barrier down. He says his students are going to invite the Valier student body to a talking circle to heal the rift.
“The longer we wait, the tougher it’s going to be to repair the damages that have been done,” Tatsey says.
He says he reached out to this Valier administration to develop a plan to heal the rift but was told they’re still investigating the video. Valier Superintendent Julie Gaffney declined to comment, saying she’ll wait until all the facts are revealed. She expects the investigation to wrap up by Friday.
Other Montana high schools have undergone similar controversies within their sports programs.
This spring, Poplar High School was restricted from raising a tribal flag at a state tournament. The Montana High School Association changed its policy after the Fort Peck Tribes filed a grievance.
Travis McAdam is the research director at the Montana Human Rights Network. He says he’s used to hearing about events like this but says this video surprised him.
“The fact that this really did seem to be part of a school sanctioned activity, that did make it feel a little more troubling than some of the other things that happen in and around school events,” McAdam says.
What he means is that the video was shown at a pep rally put on by the school, which he says makes it different than the actions of, say a rogue actor who vandalizes a poster.
He says he hopes Valier considers hosting an assembly to teach students about the crisis of missing and murdered indigenous people.
Olivia Reingold is Yellowstone Public Radio’s Report for America corps member.