American Indians’ response to Watson’s reprieve: Saddens my heart, ignorance, cultural erasure

Kansas education commissioner to serve 30-day suspension for comments

By: - February 26, 2022 8:54 am
Trio of American Indians serving in the Kansas Legislature share frustration with state Board of Education's decision to suspend rather than accept the resignation of K-12 education commissioner after he made an insensitive, racist remark about Native people. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)

Trio of American Indians serving in the Kansas Legislature share frustration with state Board of Education’s decision to suspend rather than accept the resignation of K-12 education commissioner after he made an insensitive, racist remark about Native people. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — State Rep. Stephanie Byers believes the Kansas Board of Education’s retention of the state’s education commissioner after cracking a childish joke about alleged violent tendencies of First Nations people illustrated how deeply racism was buried in mainstream culture.

She said her point was made when the Board of Education rejected commissioner Randy Watson’s resignation and imposed a 30-day unpaid suspension after video surfaced allowing viewers to see for themselves what he considered humor. Watson said during an online education presentation that in his youth he’d mischievously told cousins from California not to be afraid of Kansas tornadoes but “you got to worry about Indians raiding the town at any time.”

As news of his mid-February remark began to circulate, Watson submitted a letter of resignation. The 10-member Board of Education voted unanimously Friday to retain Watson.

“Substitute any other race or ethnicity for ‘Indian’ in his quote, then explain how it should be forgiven,” Byers said.

Byers, of the Chickasaw Nation forced in the 1830s from land in the Southeast to territory that became Oklahoma, said there wasn’t anything funny about Watson’s statement. The Board of Education failed American Indians by not accepting Watson’s offer to step down, she said.

“This is a part of how cultural erasure occurs,” Byers said. “Being Native American isn’t a joke and to consider it as such robs us of our dignity.”

Byers, a former public school teacher, said the Board of Education should defer to the Native population in Kansas as it worked to improve damaged relationships with First Nations people. She said repairing the harm highlighted by Watson’s insensitivity should begin by learning about next steps directly from leaders of the four nations in Kansas — the Sac and Fox, Iowa, Kickapoo and Potawatomie.


‘Extremely enlightening’

Jim Porter, chairman of the state Board of Education and a school superintendent for 34 years, said he was contacted privately by people who defended Watson’s contributions to education and by individuals eager for Watson’s removal despite that track record. He said Watson’s remark was offensive and impossible to justify. Watson apologized, he said, but some people declined to accept that remorse.

Porter said that while conducting an inquiry into Watson’s statement he visited with “some of the leaders” disturbed by sentiment shared by the state’s top education administrator.

“This was extremely enlightening to me,” Porter said. “I heard about offensive and insulting situations being faced by Native American children regularly and consistently on a daily basis because of their race. This is not acceptable and needs to be addressed.”

He said tribal leaders would be invited to make presentations to the Board of Education to help guide strategies for mitigating racism.

“We need to assure that Kansas is a welcoming and safe place for each student, regardless of their heritage or any other factor,” Porter said. “We also need to stop the effort to deny their culture.”

The state Board of Education has constitutional authority over K-12 public education, which includes nearly 500,000 students. The duties are shared with more than 280 locally elected school districts boards of education.

Gov. Laura Kelly joined three Native American legislators in recommending Watson resign as commissioner. After the Board of Education vote, a spokeswoman for the governor said: “There is an opportunity to build on this moment to ensure that all Kansas school children are treated with dignity and respect.”


Not enough justice

Rep. Ponka-We Victors-Cozad, the state’s first Native American woman member of the Legislature, said she disagreed with the state Board of Education’s decision to temporarily suspend Watson before returning him to the post of commissioner. The Wichita Democrat said members of the state education board failed Native American students of Kansas.

“It saddens my heart because I had faith in our board that they would make the right decision,” Victors-Cozad said. “Instead, they perpetuated and justified his negative comments by allowing him to continue to serve in his position.”

She said outcome of the controversy demonstrated Indigenous people weren’t considered a priority and their perspectives easily dismissed.

“A slap on the wrist and trying to sweep it under the rug isn’t enough justice for me,” she said.

Rep. Christina Haswood, who represents a district that includes Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence, said a majority of tribal leaders in Kansas called for Watson’s resignation. Swallowing pain of the Board of Education’s defense of Watson isn’t conducive to personal or societal healing, she said.

“It shows our Native students that when these types of stereotypical comments are made, they should just get over it and tolerate them,” Haswood said. “When we toss accountability to the wayside and allow ignorance, we deny equality to the minority. Native Americans have faced bigotry and hate for centuries. Until we can properly deal with these racist comments, ignorance will be the antithesis to justice.”

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Tim Carpenter
Tim Carpenter

Tim Carpenter has reported on Kansas for 35 years. He covered the Capitol for 16 years at the Topeka Capital-Journal and previously worked for the Lawrence Journal-World and United Press International. He has been recognized for investigative reporting on Kansas government and politics. He won the Kansas Press Association's Victor Murdock Award six times. The William Allen White Foundation honored him four times with its Burton Marvin News Enterprise Award. The Kansas City Press Club twice presented him its Journalist of the Year Award and more recently its Lifetime Achievement Award. He earned an agriculture degree at Kansas State University and grew up on a small dairy and beef cattle farm in Missouri. He is an amateur woodworker and drives Studebaker cars.