Rep. Ponka-We Victors-Cozad, a Native American and Wichita Democrat, said she rejected an apology by Rep. John Wheeler, R-Garden City, who made an insensitive remark about Victors-Cozad holding a tomahawk instead of a gavel. (Pool photo by Evert Nelson/Topeka Capital-Journal)
TOPEKA — Rep. Ponka-We Victors-Cozad rejected Friday the apology of a House Republican who said during a House floor debate that he had to make certain Victors-Cozad was using a wooden gavel rather than a tomahawk to bring order to the chamber.
The incident occurred the same day a pair of Native American lawmakers in the House created history by simultaneously presiding over the chamber and carrying a bill on the floor. Victors-Cozad, a Wichita Democrat, was joined by Rep. Christina Haswood, D-Lawrence, as the House considered Wednesday a bill transferring one-half acre of land from the City of Shawnee to the Shawnee tribe where remains of tribal leaders were buried.
Victors-Cozad said the “racially insensitive” comment by Rep. John Wheeler, R-Garden City, was an abuse of his power as an elected member of the Legislature. She said his “slanderous” attempt at satire mocked her Native American culture and shouldn’t be tolerated by the Legislature.
“These remarks had no relevance in our sacred House chamber — to the business at hand — other than to instigate mockery towards myself and the Native people that I represent throughout the country,” Victors-Cozad said.
“I do not accept Representative Wheeler’s disingenuous apology. We as members of this legislative branch cannot allow this behavior to be tolerated without consequence in the people’s House,” she said.
Wheeler, who served as Finney County prosecutor from 1993 to 2013 prior to election to the House in 2017, was leading discussion of a bill altering the state’s approach to assessing competency of individuals prior to trial. As the volume of private conversation among House members elevated, Victors-Cozad tapped the House speaker’s gavel to signal the need to pay attention to Wheeler.
“Thank you, madam chair,” said Wheeler, who turned to face Victors-Cozad. “I was just checking to see if that was a tomahawk.”
The remark from Wheeler resulted in a combination of laughter and groaning among state representatives. Wheeler audibly chuckled at his sense of humor, before facing his colleagues and offering an apology.
“I am getting a point that that is apparently considered offensive,” Wheeler told House colleagues. “If it is, I certainly do apologize.”
He subsequently reached out to the three Native Americans serving in the House to express remorse for his commentary.
On Friday, Victors-Cozad said she wouldn’t devalue Wheeler’s religion, place of worship or culture. She expected Wheeler to offer the same reverence and respect of other Kansans as he did his own religion and culture.
“I would like to think our elected public officials would know and understand this principle,” Victors-Cozad said. “This is women’s history month and I am a proud Native American mother making history for the state of Kansas, and Representative Wheeler did his best to tarnish these accomplishments. I firmly hold him accountable to his words and actions.”
Wheeler, 74, is a member of the Legislature’s joint committee on state-tribal relations. It provides a bridge between the Legislature and the state’s four federally recognized tribes.
A backdrop to controversy in the House was the bizarre statement last month by Randy Watson, commissioner of the Kansas Department of Education, during an online educational program. Watson had said during the video conference that during his youth he tried to persuade children to fear for their safety when visiting Kansas because American Indians might attack them.
The Kansas State Board of Education emerged from an executive session to unanimously reject Watson’s offer to resign for the derogatory remark, but did suspend him for one month without pay. His suspension is scheduled to end Monday.
Rep. Stephanie Byers, a Wichita Democrat and of the Chickasaw nation, said the suspension of Watson wouldn’t be considered an appropriate response to an example of systematic racism confronted by American Indians. She said acceptance of Watson’s resignation by the state Board of Education would have been appropriate.
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