It seemed like, in basketball parlance, a slam-dunk. A no miss, an easy score for the Tucson Unified School District board.
At its Tuesday meeting, board member Adelita Grijalva proposed placing the flags of the Tohono O’odham and Pascua Yaqui nations in the board’s meeting rooms.
It would be a symbol of respect for Native Americans and a nod to the fact that we live on indigenous lands.
There was public support for the proposal during the meeting, which I saw and heard on the district’s video.
Adriana Ortiz, a sophomore at Tucson Magnet High School and a Pascua Yaqui, urged the board to adopt Grijalva’s proposal. She said it’s important for Native American students, who would see the flags as a sign of acknowledgment, unlike classroom textbooks that inadequately teach Native American history and culture.
“I’m not learning about my ancestors who were amazing warriors,” she said.
But what should have been an automatic, unanimous vote turned out to be a drawn-out discussion, highlighted by board chairman Mark Stegeman’s sole vote in opposition.
Why? Because of the size of the flags.
The Tohono O’odham and Pascua Yaqui flags would be comparable and “equal in size” to the Arizona and U.S. flags, said Stegeman during the board’s pre-vote discussion. Allowing the two flags, he added, would “raise questions in some quarters.”
Some quarters? I doubt President Trump would even notice. He’s got enough issues to deal with.
Even board member Rachel Sedgwick, who expressed sympathy for Stegeman’s position, voted for Grijalva’s proposal.
Yes, there is a U.S. flag code that stipulates proper placement of non-U.S. flags alongside the U.S. flag. But there was no intent or discussion here to supersede the regulations.
The proposal was plain and non-intrusive: Allow the flags of the two principal Native American tribes of Southern Arizona to be displayed in the board meeting room. It is a simple act of recognition of the historical presence of Native Americans.
Grijalva noted that the Pima County Board of Supervisors recently voted to place the Pascua Yaqui and Tohono O’odham flags in its meeting room.
Indeed, the county board voted 5-0 earlier this year to place two smaller Native American flags in its boardroom, and they are properly placed in accordance with flag decorum. The same thing will happen at TUSD.
Superintendent Gabriel Trujillo said of the two tribes, “The impact and influence that they have had on this district through its 150 years of history has been academically, artistically and culturally significant.”
Stegeman did not budge. He staked his opposition to the Native American flags on his insistence that this is “not an educational issue.”
He said the Native American educational issue, as long as he has been on the board, has been “the inadequacy of the educational services to tribal nations. That’s an important educational issue to me.” He also said it’s “important to recognize the two nations.”
To burnish his credentials, Stegeman, an associate professor of economics at the University of Arizona, said he has supported educational services for Native American students, which number about 2,000 in the district . This comes from a board member who hasn’t flown the flag of culturally relevant studies in TUSD, nor has he publicly led initiatives to improve educational services to Native American students.
And just to make sure that no one calls him out for his stance, he said, “I intend no disrespect.”
But it sure sounded disrespectful.
Yes, this question is small compared to the larger challenges facing the district. Some people couldn’t care less if Native American flags are displayed. And certainly there’ll be some people in “some quarters,” as Stegeman put it, who will howl in opposition.
But to Native American youths who struggle with identity and exclusion, the placement of the flags is more than symbolic.
“This is about inclusivity,” said Lourdes Guedes Pereira, a senior at Pueblo Magnet High School.
“Education is important to all of us, that’s why we’re here.”
If it weren’t for culturally relevant programs “a lot of us wouldn’t be here today.”