Thomas Explains Goal and Aftermath of Indigenous Speaker

Students and faculty gather in the library with Thomas Shoulderblade and Rebecca Cohen on Nov. 18. Photo by Shaila Joshi.

During Indigenous Heritage Month, Thomas Shoulderblade, a Native American, came to speak to the high school during an assembly on Nov. 18. He talked about several issues Native American communities face. According to several students interviewed by the Bit, he made some controversial statements comparing the struggles of those in Black and indigenous communities. The response from the community resulted in a continued conversation during lunch to which Shoulderblade, students and faculty were invited.

Director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Marlo Thomas explained that Lower School Principal Cami Okubo connected Rebecca Cohen, co-founder of Lodge Approach and Okubo’s college roommate, with GDS. According to its website, Lodge Approach aims to “transform lives through shared authentic, immersive, cultural experiences” by bringing groups of people to the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation in Montana.

Cohen said that Okubo introduced the school to Lodge Approach since she thought the organization could help people at GDS learn about the Native American experience. The organization works with Shoulderblade and brought him to speak at the school.

Thomas noted the importance of having Shoulderblade talk to the school about his experience as a Native American “and the current work that he does with young Native American students and preserving their language and their culture in ways that are really important.” Shoulderblade said he works to develop a curriculum at a public school that teaches students about Native American culture. According to Cohen, in addition to speaking to groups of both students and adults from the Lippman School in Ohio, Shoulderblade works as the “cultural liaison” for a school district on a reservation. 

Thomas said “we felt like it was an important opportunity for students to hear directly from and engage directly with” Native American experiences and learn more “not only about history, but contemporary issues that are impacting Native Americans within our country.” She said that the assembly was an effort to bring awareness “as it relates to Indigenous People’s Heritage Month or within our own curriculum and how we teach about Native American history.”

Cohen said she talked to the office of diversity, equity and inclusion about the education GDS students “get on Native American history, and they wanted Thomas [Shoulderblade] to speak about his experience just being Native American in this country.” 

She added that she and Shoulderblade prepared for the assembly before coming to GDS. She said the discussion was “a combination of what the school wants” and a list of her own questions. “Thomas [Shoulderblade] adds and subtracts what he likes and what he doesn’t, so we work collaboratively,” she said.

Prior to the assembly, Thomas and her colleagues in the office of diversity, equity and inclusion were considering hosting a lunchtime discussion with Shoulderblade in addition to the assembly. But after Shoulderblade spoke at the assembly, they knew they needed to hold the discussion because it was important for students to have the opportunity to talk about the remarks Shoulderblade made that upset students.

During the assembly, Shoulderblade discussed several prominent issues including the lack of media exposure of the Native American community and missing Native American women who are kidnapped from their reservations. According to Thomas, Shoulderblade essentially said that the Black community has been treated poorly in the United States, but he added that Native Americans were treated even more poorly. She said that before Shoulderblade spoke, “we had intentions of offering a space, but not necessarily a restorative space,” but when he made comparative comments, “it was at that moment that it felt like we needed to shift to a restorative conversation.

“I think it was that moment where it felt like there was this [comparison] of who was treated worse than the other that landed—certainly for many, to include myself—as an ‘ouch moment,’” she said. 

Junior Victoria Agerskov-Townsend said she appreciated Shoulderblade talking about topics she had not learned much about but that she thought many of the comparisons he made were hurtful. “I get his intent, but by putting people against each other, nothing good is going to come out of that,” she said.

“I think it was really courageous of those students to say what they had to say and to speak their truth,” Cohen said of the feedback and questions students offered to Shoulderblade. “And I think it was also awesome that Thomas [Shoulderblade] did.”

Sophomore Izzie Hsu said she “would be surprised” if GDS brought Shoulderblade in again to speak at the school. She added that she thinks “he offended people, and that definitely left a big impact on the students at GDS,” but she doesn’t think Shoulderblade should determine people’s impression of Lodge Approach as a whole.

Thomas also explained that there is a possibility that Shoulderblade, or someone else from Lodge Approach, may return to the school in February. She added there may be a lunchtime session or a workshop offered during the Social Justice Teach-In Day in February. Specifically, students could learn more about the history of the Native American community and how they maintain their culture.

Agerskov-Townsend said if people from Lodge Approach came back to speak at GDS, she would “be willing to listen to what they’re saying, as long as they just take into consideration how what they said affected people last time.”

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