Why Native Histories Matter in the Classroom

Jun 19, 2023 | Blog, Featured Post, President's Blog

My father passed away in the last of the 1980’s. After he died, my mom gave me some of his books. Among them was The Essentials of United States History (W. Mowry, copyright 1906, 1911, 1914). It is a school textbook, and my father stamped it with the date of 1937. He was a student at Rosebud Boarding School at that time.

Over the years, I have often looked at that book and thought of what it must have been like for him, a Lakota boy, attending a boarding school where the underlying educational intention was to remove his Native identity. A couple of quotes, when describing what the author characterizes as “Primitive America” and its inhabitants, included “They were divided into many tribes and spoke different dialects, but they all belonged to one race of men and they were all barbarians.” (p. 2), and “While man was the provider and the protector, woman was the drudge.” (p. 3)

As an educator, a Tribal citizen, a mother, and a grandmother, when I read those statements and many like them, I think of the terrible ways that a faulty or incomplete education harms the identity and well-being of Native people. For many years, I celebrated the transformative changes in curriculum that shifted the narrative about Indigenous people in the Americas to a more truthful portrayal that included our many wonderful contributions and the truth about treaties, federal law and policy, conflicts, and so much more. Now, it seems policymakers are shifting to a stance somewhere in between harmful statements and positive inclusion: silence.

For example, in May 2023, the South Dakota Board of Education Standards announced its decision to adopt new K- 12 social studies standards that will drastically limit students’ exposure to facts and accurate depictions of Native peoples and cultures. As a result, these standards will cause harm by perpetuating stereotypes and inaccurate histories or by erasing Native peoples, cultures, and contributions.

According to an analysis by Education Week, 44 states have introduced bills or taken other legal steps to restrict teaching critical race theory. In the case of South Dakota, Gov. Kristi Noem signed an executive order that requires the state’s department of education to review and remove from its policies, materials, standards, and trainings any “inherently divisive concepts.” Gov. Noem’s executive order also places limits on how teachers can discuss racism and sexism.

An article in Education Week’s 2021 Spotlight on critical race theory (CRT) (“What is Critical Race Theory and Why is It Under Attack?” by Steven Sawchuck), defines CRT as an academic concept which has been around for 40 years, and asserts race is a social construct that codifies prejudice through social and legal systems to give certain groups advantages over others, such as in housing markets or lending. CRT is the lens through which race’s impact on groups and history is critically examined.

Although we know Indigenous peoples are not a race, but rather, are separate nations recognized by the federal government through the U.S. Constitution, they have been historically marginalized and oppressed through systematic discrimination as other racial groups have been.

The furor around CRT is indicative of our nation’s divisive political environment. The majority of the states where tribal colleges and universities are located have enacted, are considering, or have considered bans (of which many were killed in committee or were vetoed). This political division interferes with the rights of all students, not just Indigenous students, to learn about the histories of the lands their states are located. These histories and current events include: Native identity and resilience, the cultures and languages of the people who reside in their borders, their kinship and oral traditions, and how sovereign Indigenous nations contribute to the economies, cultures, histories, environment, and successes of the states where they are located.

The decision by the South Dakota Board of Education Standards was made without adequate consultation with Tribes and without adhering to previous standards adopted by the board in 2018. Those standards were drafted by a working group that included tribal representation and leadership. The new standards were adopted despite 1,137 comments made in opposition and only 121 comments made in favor. The South Dakota Education Equity Coalition, the nine Tribal nations of South Dakota, and several national Native nonprofits have shared their concerns about these new social studies standards.

These new standards will continue the long, dark national history of Indigenous erasure. The lack of accurate depictions of Native peoples and cultures in social studies lessons will negatively impact the educational and life outcomes of Native students, as proven in numerous studies about the impact of identity, culture, and curriculum on students. Invisibility leaves Native students feeling alienated or unable to participate meaningfully when their academic and social needs are unmet. The start of misrepresentation and invisibility begins in K-12 classrooms, and the lack of representation, or misrepresentation in curricula may contribute to Native students experiencing discrimination in the classroom and lead them to believe that a college education is impossible when they do not see themselves included or accurately reflected in the curriculum.

A 2015 report by the White House Initiative on American Indian and Alaska Native Education based on nationwide listening sessions with over 1,000 current and former Native students, school staff, and community members confirms this assertion. The report found that Native students, especially those attending schools far from their communities, or living in communities where officials do not consult with Tribes, face hostile learning environments (as defined by experiencing discriminatory behavior from fellow students, teachers, and school administrators); are subject to negative depictions of Native peoples on school grounds; experience a disrespect of Native cultures, traditions, languages, and contributions; and are taught inaccurate and harmful misinformation about Native peoples or have their cultures and traditions ignored in curriculum. The report also noted Native students in these schools are suspended or expelled at a disproportionate rate than white classmates for nonviolent, disruptive behaviors.

Sharing accurate Tribal histories and cultures gives Native—and indeed all students—the rightful space in the classroom and their communities to be respected, seen, and to succeed. It also reinforces the notion that all histories, cultures, and contributions matter. We must continue to work with state and national policymakers to ensure Native students can succeed at all levels of education, from early childhood to college. We urge allies of Native communities to continue to remind educators, administrators, and policymakers across the nation that an accurate and well-rounded education is the fundamental building block to a functional democracy.

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American Indian and Alaska Native communities have achieved a great deal in the past century. Here at the American Indian College Fund, we look forward to what successes the future will bring as we encourage Native students, scholars, and communities alike to use the tools of citizenship to make their voices heard and their peoples prosper.