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Rewriting Native American History in the Classrom

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Concerns about the lack of Native American teachings in current curriculums across the states are attributed to the very low attainment rates and the high drug abuse among Native American teens. Our children are growing up ignorant and our teachers know no better. Is there not enough concern? Native Americans have been fighting for recognition for centuries, instead they are recognized as a piece of history that existed only before the 1900s. Textbooks provide inaccurate information on the history of Native Americans, portraying them as a burden to colonists. The only people who benefit from a revisionist history are individuals who are trying to basically erase some atrocities that some individuals’ ancestors have committed, shielding students from the ugly history but really are self-serving (Perez, “Revisionist History”, para. 15). Students need to know the truth. They deserve to know the truth, the good and the ugly. Native American students and non-native students should know the important histories of all the cultures surrounding them, so they can work together and achieve a higher level of equality.

A lack of Native American culture in the classroom causes all American students to grow up ignorant by not knowing about the different cultures that surround them. Incorporating Native American culture into the classroom can help Native Americans to have a greater sense of self-worth as well as teach our students the important history of America. A lack of history and culture in the classroom does not just affect the historical knowledge of our students but also can have negative effects on Native American student’s confidence as well as their potential for success. Reassessing our current curriculums and incorporating more cultural and accurate historical teachings, while teachers provide a caring environment for all can greatly benefit our students. Higher rates of graduation, higher percentages of Native Americans successfully going and graduating from college, as well as more Native American educators will follow if we can implement the important culture, government, and history curriculums across our nation.

One of the major issues with our current state of teachings on cultural history pertaining to Native Americans is our curriculums. Curriculums across the states have a lack of lesson plans on Native American history as well as a lack of accurate information presented in our textbooks. “We’re a textbook-oriented society and the textbooks, when they deal with Indians, don’t have a lot to say, or it’s all Manifest Destiny, so you’re really on your own to develop curriculum,” says Jon Reyhner (2002), professor of education at Northern Arizona University (“Tolerance” para. 4). Asking a teacher to completely revamp their curriculum on their own, while trying to manage their classroom of students is asking too much. Is creating these new and improved curriculums to better understand our history as a nation even on our radar? Some states have motions to put mandates in place to make sure these lessons are being taught. Montana for example, has the IEFA act (Indian Education for All) which was implemented in 2005 when it got financial backing (“Huffington: Native American History” para. 4). The Act states that “every student whether they are native or not shall be encouraged to learn about the distinct and unique heritage of American Indians in a culturally responsive manner”. Montana is one of the only states to have this motion in place, although Washington state does have something similar. In May of 2015 Governor Jay Inslee signed a piece of legislation that mandates Washington students learn culture, history, and government with input from the states 29 recognized tribes. This is certainly progress. Some of the schools in Washington State were hesitant due to the potential financial costs, however in the bill it’s stated there will be no financial impact. Schools are required to use the developed curriculum, which is free of charge and made available by the OSPI (Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction). Washington State has 29 recognized tribes and roughly 138,000 Native Americans, therefore the state has an abundance of cultural history as well as current cultural events taking place that need to be taught (ofm.wa.gov). Washington isn’t the only state that has this high level of Native American residents, other states are just the same and their students need to learn about the history as well as the current events among Native Americans.

Our current textbooks are a complete misrepresentation of history in America. “Aside from some obligatory lessons about Pilgrims and Indians at Thanksgiving and maybe a retelling of Pocahontas and Sacagawea’s contributions to Anglo exploration of the New World, generations of American school children grow up effectively ignorant of the tragic and complicated story of this nation’s original inhabitants” (Constantin, 2015, para. 2). 87% of the references made to Native Americans in curriculum textbooks across the country portrayed them as a population that only existed prior to the 1900s according to professional educator Sarah Shear (Wade, 2014, para. 3). The narratives are incomplete due to most textbooks not covering anything after the 1860 American-Indian wars (Martinez, 2014). The current texts don’t include any current information on Native Americans, no peace treaties, no sovereignties, and no mention of the fact that Native Americans are still struggling for recognition. 90% of all textbooks used in curriculums with information pertaining to Native Americans were written by non-natives. Not only do these students need to learn about the important cultural history they need to learn about current events that don’t only pertain to the mainstream media. According to the U.S. Department of Education, schools that support a student’s language and culture are more successful in educating those students. Therefore, our teachers need to be re-educated on this subject before we will see success. Most textbooks portray the genocidal war between colonists and Native Americans as an inevitable conflict that colonizers handled well (Wade, 2014, para. 4). Of all the states, only Washington uses the word “genocide” to describe this conflict. Only four states mention the Indian boarding schools, which took Indian children from their family and put them in school to re-socialize them in a Euro-American way of life (Wade, 2014, para. 4). Our current curriculums are not just lacking the textbooks and materials needed to teach, but they are teaching students that Indians are a thing of the past. Like Vikings or the Romans, Indians are just a piece of history. “We have to teach history, the good, bad and ugly, but it has to be taught correctly. By giving the true history, Native students in school can start feeling better about themselves” Says Senator John Mccoy (Fifield 2016). Children will continue to think this way until our curriculums change and our educators become knowledgeable on the subject.

Less than 1% of all teachers across the states are native. Teachers who want to teach these important lessons don’t have the material or the knowledge needed to teach them. It’s a downhill spiral from the beginning. Our current teachers were not taught this important history either, so how can they possibly teach it themselves? Teaching Native Americans that they were the antagonist to colonists and that they slowed progress is not the way their ancestors saw it. “Just imagine, you’re a White kid and all of a sudden everybody’s Latin and everything they’re teaching you is Latin and you don’t hear anything about yourself or about your contributions. You don’t know, hear about George Washington, you don’t hear about Thomas Jefferson and you feel like you haven’t contributed anything. How would you feel? How would you think of your future? How would you think of your participation in American culture?” (Leguizamo, “Experts Say”, 2015, para. 9). That’s how Native American students feel, they feel left out of history. To make it even worse, the little bit of history that is taught in the classroom is generally negative. When you teach the concepts presented in our current textbooks, you’re teaching Native American children that they are not important, that they don’t matter, and they didn’t contribute positively in history.

Native American teens have the highest drop-out rates in America as well the highest drug abuse rates. This is partially attributed to the fact that there is a lack of cultural relevance in mainstream education (Martinez, “School Culture”, para. 2). Many students view their classrooms as culturally unrelated to them. “Insisting that the culture of school is more important than culture of students’ homes is form of cultural imperialism” Says Dr. Martinez who teaches at University of Colorado Denver (Martinez, 2014). Only 46% Native American high schoolers graduate compared to a national average of 89%. Only 17% are admitted into college, compared to a national average of 62%. Of this 17%, only 4% make it successfully through their first year. 11% of American Indians have college degrees, less than half the norm for the rest of the country (Martinez, “School Culture”, para. 2). Not all native students have ties to their ancestry, some may not be enrolled in their tribe or some may be disconnected from their families. With this lack of cultural ties in and out of the classroom, these students struggle to find purpose. They feel unimportant and feel like they haven’t contributed to history. This certainly can hinder one’s confidence in themselves and their confidence in the education system. Furthermore, with Native American teachers making up less than 1% of the current teachers across the United States, many Native American students are then taught by non-natives. Having a teacher the same race as you can be the key to success (Clarren, “How America is Failing”). A study of 100,000 African American students found that when they had an African American teacher between 3rd and 5th grade their chances of dropping out declined by 29%. Students are dropping out due to a lack of cultural ties, a lack of cultural history in the curriculum, and insufficient funding. Having a mentor or teacher of the same race who you can relate to and see success is a key factor. When you’re taught every Thanksgiving about the pilgrims and genocide and how Native Americans were a burden to colonists, you’re not able to see the success of your people. The office of Indian Education has a grant program intended to bring in more Native teachers and administrators, however according to the Department of Education inspector the program is mismanaged.

Native American teens also have one of the highest drug abuse problems among other teens. In 2009-2012, 56.2 percent of Native American 8th graders had used marijuana compared to 16.4 percent of non-native 8th graders. 61.4 percent of those in 10th grade had used marijuana compared to 33.4 percent of non-native 10th graders (DrugAbuse.Gov). Native American teen alcohol abuse is at 27.4% for 8th graders in comparison to 13.8% for non-native 8th grade students. Despite the drug and alcohol abuse among Native American teens only 8% who drop out do so because of academic failure. Most complain about boredom, and perceived hostility from classmates and teachers which creates a difficult school climate (Reyhner, 1995). A lack of empathy from teachers is considered a factor in drop-out rates (Pember, 2010). Native American students have teachers who are uninformed on their culture and have no way of teaching it. Teachers can be empathetic and caring for their Native students, but they need to be able to understand their struggle, while providing them with accurate historical information. Teaching more lessons of success among Native Americans opposed to the American-Indian wars. Strong Native American language and culture programs have found to lower attrition, better student teacher relations, as well as improving attendance and the percentage of students who attend college (McCarty, 2014). Culture programs can only do so much, students need caring empathetic teachers and to be in an inviting drug free environment to really see results. Decreased drop-out rates start with caring and informed teachers (Martinez, 2014).

It was only 136 years ago, just a little over a century that the mission boarding schools for Native American children were in use. These boarding schools are not mentioned in curriculums across the country except for four states. “Education was used as a weapon to remove and isolate children from their families, diminish tribal populations, and extinguish tribal cultures” Says Martinez. Children were subject to the repression of any previous cultural ties such as their names, languages, and religion. Military styled trainings and punishment were routinely used. Children were removed from their families and tribal communities, as young as the age of five, up to age eighteen (Daniels, 2012). Transportation to boarding schools were very expensive, therefore most children didn’t see their family. These children were re-socialized and readmitted into the general population in a Euro-American way. Attending these boarding schools reduces the likelihood that the tribal member will reside in their native community by 33%. Attending also reduces the likelihood of participating in cultural activities by 53% and 26% less of a chance of speaking their original language (Indian country 2016). Therefore, the parents and grandparents of today’s students may very well be undereducated on their ancestry, culture, and history. There is a lack of Native American history not just in the classroom, but outside of the classroom as well resulting in our students being extremely ignorant without choice.

School campuses can be anti-Native American at times. Despite the NCAA getting rid of Native American mascots many public schools still use names like “Savages”, “Redskins”, and “Fighting Reds” to name a few. Mascots are usually depicted using derogatory cartoon like images (Martinez, 2014). Students enter the school year in September, football season starts, they are then surrounded by a derogatory atmosphere to begin with. Shortly after that comes November, where again, the typical teachings of the pilgrims, Pocahontas, and other Thanksgiving lessons are taught. Mainstream education is typically schools filled with predominately white children and the curriculum and environment certainly reflect that. Between the mascots, lesson plans, and non-native teachers we are creating an uninviting environment for Native American students.

While, legislations have passed in Washington state and constitutional mandates in Montana, still none of these programs are getting the proper funding they need with the exception of Washington States curriculum provided by OSPI. Curriculums can’t be updated, and textbooks can’t be written or purchased without proper funding. Trainings need to be provided for current teachers. It’s a product of inertia. Going back in time, it wasn’t any better. Our teachers didn’t learn this when they were in school and our Native American students are struggling to succeed in High School, so how are they going to be successful in college and potentially become a teacher, so they can properly teach this information to future students? We need more Native American teachers and administrators, but it starts with our current curriculums and teachers.

States who have higher populations of Native Americans are trying to integrate cultural teachings into their classroom. The “Every Student Succeeds Act”, which replaced the “No Child Left Behind” places new requirements on all states and some school districts. Schools must interact with tribes when making annual plans. If these schools fail to do so, they could potentially lose federal aid through programs like Title I, which serve low-income families (Fifield, 2016). This new act helps fund programs related to Native American Education, such as language immersion programs (Fifield, 2016). Minnesota and South Dakota both recently passed bills that increased the funding for schools who have higher Native American populations, which hopefully give them enough funding to integrate more Native American teachings into their curriculums. South Dakota received $1.7 million for a specialist to work with schools to redesign their curriculums, including embedding culture into them. On top of Jay Inslee signing the bill requiring schools to teach lessons on government, history and culture, the University of Washington is now providing a new program that trains teachers and gives them certification to teach culture. California has a similar program (Fifield, 2016). Governor Jerry Brown of California also signed bill AB 738 which requires the State Board of Education on Curriculum to create a new Native American Studies class curriculum for high schools. Brown also signed AB 2016, which creates an elective Ethnic studies course that would include Native American history and culture (Jones, 2018). In 2009, New Mexico passed a law requiring all state agencies to work with Native American tribes when making new policies and programs that have any effect on Native Americans.

The last century Native Americans have struggled to gain recognition. They have dealt with the long-term effects of boarding schools as well as failed to be a part of the mainstream media. Students in schools across America are not learning the cultural history of their ancestors, which is a factor in high attainment rates and drug abuse among young Native Americans. Clearly, some progress has been made. Specifically, in states that have high Native American populations such as Washington, Montana, California and South Dakota. It will surely take some time for it to catch on, teachers will have to implement the new curriculums and the results will soon follow, however the new curriculums are not enough. Teachers need to understand what their student’s needs are aside from lesson plans. Students need something to relate to, students need culture, history, as well as caring and empathetic teachers. All students including non-natives must know the cultural backgrounds of everyone around them, this way successful strong relationships can be built. Non-natives and natives alike will hopefully become more successful in school and go on to be politicians, educators, and community leaders; know each other’s background and how their governments work etc. will allow everyone to work together and help to raise recognition and bring more equality.

Tribal leaders should support indigenous educators and community members who are reclaiming their languages, histories, and cultural traditions. Integrating tribal knowledge into education curriculum can lead to strong native nations and an empowered citizenry as the evidence from this most likely suggest. (Indian Country Today, Fier, 2016)

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