A Native woman made history in the Kansas House. An insensitive remark quickly followed

Bo Rader / The Wichita Eagle

Rep. Ponka-We Victors, a Wichita Democrat, made history Wednesday afternoon as the first Native American woman to serve as chair of the Kansas House of Representatives.

But the moment was tarnished when Rep. John Wheeler, a Garden City Republican, made an insensitive remark during a floor speech.

Wheeler told Victors he was “checking to see if that was a tomahawk” after she struck her gavel to quiet the body. He immediately apologized after the comment was met with a mix of laughter and vocal disapproval.

“I am getting a point that that is apparently considered offensive, if it is I certainly do apologize,” Wheeler said.

It follows an inappropriate comment by Kansas Commissioner of Education Randy Watson at a conference last month when he recounted telling out-of-state family members about the threat of tornadoes in Kansas. “You’ve got to worry about the Indians raiding the town at any time,” he said.

Gov. Laura Kelly called for Watson’s resignation after the remark was made public. Watson submitted his resignation to the Board of Education, but the it voted unanimously to reject his resignation and suspend him from his post for 30 days without pay.

Before the House adjourned for the week, Rep. John Alcala, a Topeka Democrat, returned to Wheeler’s comment and requested an apology to the only three Native American women representatives in the state, Victors, Christina Haswood of Lawrence and Stephanie Byers of Wichita.

“Sometimes if things get left unsaid, they get left undone or they don’t get noticed,” Alcala said. “I just think that we need to be careful of the times that we’re in and more sensitive to what we say to people because it’s a totally different era and people are more educated and more familiar with the history of their culture. I would say that I think an apology is due…it was a bad comment.”

Victors and Wheeler did not immediately respond to requests for comment.