Sandy's Story

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

I posted on Facebook about the killing of my 14-year-old cousin by police. My school district tried to fire me.

By Sandra Gokee

In November, my fourteen-year-old cousin Jason Pero, who is a member of the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Tribe, was shot and killed by a sheriff’s deputy. Our family was heartbroken by Jason’s death. We were grieving and angry. But I never could have imagined that what happened next would put my job as a language teacher in the Ashland School District at risk.

Traditionally families here would share their feelings around the kitchen table. Today, I’m able to share with a wider community online. A few days after Jason’s death, I channeled my grief and anger into a post on my personal Facebook page, where I go by a different name than the one I use at work. I said I believed Jason had been murdered, and that the epidemic of police violence against Native American communities needed to stop.

The post went viral, and I heard from Native Americans around the country about their experiences with the police – and the legacy of ethnic cleansing, forced removal, and genocide that shapes the Native American experience to this day. Today, Native American people are three times more likely to be killed by police than whites and at a rate 12% higher than African Americans.

I had hoped this tragedy would lead to an honest dialogue between members of our tribes and the predominantly white power structure in Ashland. Instead, Ashland School District administrators put me on administrative leave and asked me to resign from my job teaching the Ojibwe language.

School administrators reprimanded me for “creating” racial tension – as if my expressions of grief and anger about the death of my cousin were to blame for the divisions in our community. They said I had violated school policies. But I wasn’t giving up the job I loved without a fight.

For years it was illegal for our tribes to teach our own language. Young people were shipped to boarding schools and even beaten if they spoke their native tongue. My dad was a language and culture teacher, and before he got sick I decided that I wanted to carry on that legacy and do my part to keep the Ojibwe language alive.

That’s why I fought back, and thanks to the ACLU of Wisconsin I’ll be able to return to the classroom in January. I want our tribes to be able to grieve, and I want to help heal the divisions that have riven the Ashland community for far too long. Silencing and retaliating against members of our community – and suppressing our constitutionally-protected right to free speech – will only exacerbate these tensions.

This is where we say ‘no more.’ This is where we come together and confront issues of injustice, discrimination, and police violence – openly and honestly. Together we can get back on a path of healing and reconciliation and build a future of greater trust, safety and understanding for all citizens.

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