GREEN BAY –– The Diocese of Green Bay has apologized to the family of a Native American Catholic school student who was reprimanded for speaking in her native language during class and to the Menominee Nation, the tribe to which the student’s family belongs.
The Feb. 22 apologies followed an incident Jan. 19 in which 12-year-old Miranda Washinawatok, a seventh-grader at Sacred Heart School in Shawano, was suspended from playing in a basketball game at her school because of the classroom reprimand.
The reprimand and game suspension led to meetings between the Washinawatok family, Menominee tribal leaders and school officials. Later, according to the family, after public apologies promised by the Sacred Heart principal Dan Minter were not delivered, representatives of the Diocese of Green Bay became involved.
The letters were written by Minter and Joseph Bound, director of the diocesan Department of Education.
“On behalf of the Diocese of Green Bay, I wish to apologize for the events that led up to, and have followed, the benching of Miranda for a basketball game at Sacred Heart School, in part, for her use of the Menominee language in school,” wrote Bound. “We wish we could change how that was handled. The truth is that we cannot undo any damage that was inflicted and we are keenly aware of the emotions that have come to bear as fallout in this incident.”
According to Bound, the situation at Sacred Heart School has revealed the need for cultural diversity training, not only at Sacred Heart School but at all Catholic schools in the Green Bay Diocese. He announced that a partnership with the Menominee Nation will be implemented to begin training at Sacred Heart in the coming months.
“We will then be inviting all interested cultural groups … to bring ideas and thoughts that can be crafted into an action plan that will bring cultural awareness and sensitivity to all our Catholic schools in the Diocese of Green Bay,” wrote Bound.
He concluded his letter by asking “forgiveness for our actions that have inflicted heartache, pain and anger to all those who have felt these emotions over the past several weeks.”
In a separate letter to the Washinawatok family and the Menominee Nation, Minter also said he regretted that the incident was not handled better.
“I am sorry if my actions caused hurt, brought up old hurts or in any way gave the appearance that I and, through me, this school does not value the cultural heritage of our students,” he wrote. “I ask for forgiveness from Miranda, her family and the Menominee Nation and I ask for your assistance in moving us forward to a better future regarding cultural awareness and sensitivity.”
Tanaes Washinawatok, Miranda’s mother, told The Compass, Green Bay diocesan newspaper, March 1 that she was satisfied with the letters of apology. However, two other letters to the family, one from Miranda’s homeroom teacher, Julie Gurta, and from assistant basketball coach, Billie Jo DuQuaine, who suspended her from the game, did not offer apologies. She believes Gurta should be dismissed.
“(Gurta) does not apologize for slamming her hands down on (Miranda’s) desk and saying, ‘You are not to speak like that,'” said Washinawatok, adding that Miranda translated three phrases to two classmates in Menominee: “hello,” “I love you” and “thank you.”
In her letter, the teacher stated that her actions were “not targeting the use of (Miranda’s) native language (but) in response to the disrespectful comments and behaviors exhibited by Miranda over the course of the entire day.”
Washinawatok said she had not received complaints about her daughter’s behavior prior to Jan. 19.
Richie Plass, a Menomonee tribal leader and Miranda’s uncle, has participated in discussions with Green Bay diocesan leaders and has offered to assist the diocese in its cultural awareness training. He conducts similar seminars at public schools in the state.
He called the letter issued by the diocese “very historic.”
“We do not need to travel too far back in history to see unsettling situations, approaches to settlement and downright deception when it came to relations between the Catholic Church and Indian people,” he wrote in a letter shared with The Compass. “But I can say with all honesty, ever since I have begun talking and meeting with people from the Green Bay Diocese, everyone has been true, honest and respectful in working to a positive (resolution) in Miranda’s situation.”
Minter said he is not able to discuss the matter due to privacy issues. “But I do not believe that we have now, nor have we had, racial issues at this school,” he told The Compass in a telephone interview. According to Minter, about 60 of the 103 students at the pre-kindergarten through eighth grade school are Native American.
Minter, who was principal at St. Louis School in Washburn, Wis., in the Superior Diocese, before arriving at Sacred Heart, said he has deep respect for the Native American culture.
“I actually serve on the principals’ core committee for the Black and Indian Mission Office, which works specifically with Catholic schools and parishes with large numbers of blacks and or Native American populations,” he said. The office supports Catholic evangelization efforts among black, Indian and indigenous communities throughout the United States.
He hopes to involve the school in activities celebrating the canonization of Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha next October. Blessed Kateri, a 17th-century member of the Mohawk and Algonquin tribes, will be the first Native American saint.