Students Object to Comments by Native American Assembly Speaker

Students in the library during a lunchtime meeting about the assembly. Photos by Shaila Joshi.

Thomas Shoulderblade came to talk to the GDS high school on Nov. 18 for an assembly to mark Indigenous Heritage Month. Shoulderblade is Native American and lives on a reservation in Cheyenne, Montana. Students said that in his remarks, he made controversial statements regarding race that sparked conversation among the GDS community. 

During the assembly, Shoulderblade discussed healthcare for indigenous people, exposure of Native American communities, women being kidnapped from reservations and various other struggles his community faces. Several students raised concerns about comparisons Shoulderblade made between the struggles of Native American and Black communities and comments about women’s roles in society.

Two students spoke during the assembly during the question and answer portion. Senior Jacqueline Metzger said she decided to ask a question because she was troubled by comments Shoulderblade made comparing the experience of indigenous people to those of Black people. Freshman Lauren Piper recalled that Shoulderblade “was comparing the enslavement of Black people to the enslavement of Indigenous people.”

“I was worried that I had misunderstood what he meant,” Metzger said, “and honestly, I was hoping I had misunderstood because it just hurt.” She said her question was “pretty much for him to talk about the ways in which people of color are pitted against each other in society, how that’s affected him—and in that way, I was hoping he could reframe his comments on ‘Black struggles are nothing compared to Native struggles.’”

Rebecca Cohen, Shoulderblade’s colleague, who was also at the assembly, said comments like Metzger’s have never arisen in other discussions she has spoken at. “I thought it was actually a great thing because it meant students are thinking,” she said. “And that’s our ultimate goal in education.” 

Senior Lucy Mezey said she was concerned by comments Shoulderblade made about Native American women going missing, which she said he deemed problematic because getting kidnapped limits their ability to reproduce. She thought Shoulderblade’s comments oversimplified the “definition of what a woman’s role is.”

Mezey added that “he said that Black Americans essentially have it easier than Native Americans.”

“As soon as the assembly ended, everybody was talking about it in the Forum,” Piper said. Sophomore Sadie Boyle said many people were talking about the assembly in the stairwells and during class the next period.

Thomas Shoulderblade, right, and Rebecca Cohen, second from right, during a lunchtime conversation in the library.

In an interview with the Bit after the discussion, Shoulderblade said the controversy “was just a misunderstanding of how I said something,” and that he “didn’t mean to offend anybody in any way.”

Shoulderblade was asked to speak at GDS through an organization called Lodge Approach, which was co-founded by Cohen, who currently works as its chief education officer, and Sam Chestnut. According to its website, the organization brings school and adult groups to the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation in Montana. Cohen said she knows the lower school principal, Cami Okubo, and said Okubo thought it would be a good organization to speak at GDS about the Native American experience. 

The office of diversity, equity and inclusion held a lunchtime meeting where students and faculty were invited to continue to discuss what happened during the assembly. The meeting was announced in an email sent by Guyton Mathews, the program associate for the office of diversity, equity and inclusion. The email said that since the assembly concluded in “an unfinished manner,” he and the director of the office of diversity, equity and inclusion, Marlo Thomas, wanted to invite members of the community to the discussion to “engage in a restorative conversation.” Neither Mathews nor Thomas responded to a request for an interview.

According to Cohen, she, Shoulderblade and members of the office of diversity, equity and inclusion “had already planned on doing a lunch session even before we spoke” at the assembly. 

Thomas opened up the conversation by discussing the points Shoulderblade made comparing different groups’ trauma. When the floor was opened to students, several students asked him to clarify some of the points he had made during his speech. The number of students who attended the meeting fluctuated around 20 throughout the period. 

During the lunchtime session, Piper asked Shoulderblade to elaborate on his equating the enslavement of Black people to the enslavement of indigenous people. She told the Bit that in his response, “he kind of just said the same things he said at the assembly but in a different way.” He said that both communities shared similar experiences since he believes they were both victims of massacres based on the color of their skin and were treated badly by the United States government.

Mezey said that during the meeting, it seemed like members of the office of diversity, equity and inclusion “were working really hard to quell any conflict” in how they mediated the conversation. She acknowledged that addressing differing views is part of the office’s job, but added that “conflict was sort of necessary,” because people had very intense reactions to what Shoulderblade said, and added she believed students’ opinions wouldn’t necessarily have been presented “in a disrespectful way.” 

Shoulderblade said he thought the lunchtime discussion “went very well, and everybody got to talk and express their feelings on what we were talking about.”

When reflecting on the meeting overall, Mezey said, “I didn’t find it super informative or productive, but I’m glad it was held. I think it’s probably better than doing nothing.” 

“I felt like the conversation wasn’t exactly finished,” Piper said when she left the discussion. “It felt like there wasn’t really an end to that; I feel like there could be something more that could be said about that topic.”

Sign up for our weekly newsletter!Current GDS high school students and teachers receive the newsletter automatically.