The Miseducation of Native American Students
Commentary By Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
Autumn, the beginning of the school
year, is the cruelest season for Native American students in the United States.
Between sports games where entire crowds chant about "redskins" and
other school mascots and the federal holiday of the Indian-killing mercenary
Christopher Columbus, there is the misguided national celebration of
"Thanksgiving" to mark the arrival of the religious Europeans, who
set the stage for Native American genocide.
These rituals dominate the first
months of school, putting Native children in their place, holding up the
traditions of white children, and championing the ideals of white supremacy and
imperialism. As November's recognition of Native American Heritage Month ends,
educators should resist the urge to regurgitate the usual narrative and instead
discuss the reality of life, historical and current, for the more than 600,000 Native American students in our nation's
K-12 public schools.
In researching and writing "All
the Real Indians Died Off," our book about Native American myths and
misconceptions, my co-author Dina Gilio-Whitaker and I were aware of how these
Native American stereotypes affect all children in schools today. Internalizing
harmful images most acutely damages Native children, but absorbing racist and
dehumanizing ideas about fellow classmates also diminishes the understanding
and compassion of non-Native children, warping their conception of a history
that often erases Native Americans altogether.
Sadly, the education system lies at
the heart of maintaining the erasure of Native Americans. Native children have
been miseducated for generations under deliberately repressive federal policy,
and all children in public schools are miseducated in U.S. and Native history.
Education scholar Timothy Lintner wrote that U.S. history classrooms "are
not neutral; they are contested arenas where legitimacy and hegemony battle for
While distortions and myths of
Native American culture plague many schools, textbooks often fail to mention
Native history after the 19th century. In a 2015 study, scholars Antonio
Castro, Ryan Knowles, Sarah Shear, and Gregory Soden examined the state
standards for teaching Native American history and culture in all 50 states and
found that 87 percent of references to American Indians are in a
pre-1900s context. (Washington is the only state in the union that
uses the word "genocide" in its 5th grade U.S. history standards and
teaching of Native peoples' history.) In short, existing Native nations and
land bases aren't identified, and Native people are dealt with as historical
figures, implying their extinction.
"Indigenous students are vital
and active participants in our society —not a vanished population."
No student can have a full
understanding of U.S. history and contemporary society, nor can educators
understand the inherited trauma Indigenous students still experience, as a
result of this denial. From the colonial period to the nation's founding to the
20th century, Indigenous people have endured torture, sexual abuse, massacres,
systematic military occupations, removals from their ancestral territories, and
forced attendance at military-style boarding schools. Both the U.S. Army and
the federal government experimented with residential schools during the 19th
century. In 1879, Richard H. Pratt established and became the superintendent of
the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania—the prototype for the
many militaristic federal schools that would soon crop up across the continent.
And dozens of Christian missionary boarding schools augmented this landscape.
The stated goal of the boarding
schools was assimilation into the dominant culture, but the intent was cultural
genocide. Indigenous children were prohibited from and beaten for speaking
their mother tongues or practicing their religions, among other infractions
that expressed their humanity. This while being indoctrinated in the beliefs of
Christianity. Generations of Native students, stripped of the languages and
skills of their communities, were traumatized—an effect that has contributed
significantly to the family and social dysfunction still found in Native communities.
By the mid-1960s, educators
developed multiculturalism in response to Native peoples' demands for
decolonization. But in order to affirm the U.S. origin story of democracy and
progress, Indigenous nations and histories were excluded. Treaty- and
territorially based Native people in North America were transformed by
multicultural education into an inchoate oppressed racial group.
Multiculturalism emphasizes the
"contributions" of oppressed groups to the United States' presumed
greatness. Indigenous people were credited with contributing corn and maple
syrup, buckskin and parkas, log cabins and canoes, and even the concept of
democracy. This idea of the gift-giving Native who enriched the development of
the United States, still perpetuated in schools today, is an insidious smoke
screen. It obscures the fact that the very existence of the country is a result
of looting an entire continent and displacing Indigenous people.
It is essential that U.S. schools
finally come to terms both with the profound miseducation of Indigenous
students and with an inaccurate K-12 curriculum of Indigenous history.
Indigenous students are vital and active participants in our society—not a
vanished population. Though schools have not done right by Native students in
the past, it is now, more than ever, the responsibility of educators to admit
education's stereotypes and flaws; accurately teach Native students about the
past; honor their history; and prepare them for their future. If schools begin
to address the injustices of the past, they can start work toward a more just
and equal future for Native students.
Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz is the author
or editor of eight books, including "All the Real Indians Died Off"
and 20 Other Myths About Native Americans with co-author Dina Gilio-Whitaker
(Beacon Press, 2016) and An Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States
(Beacon Press, 2014). Originally from rural Oklahoma, she is the daughter of a
tenant farmer and a mother of American Indian descent.
Vol. 36, Issue 14, Pages 22-23
Published in Print: November 30,
2016, as On Not Erasing the Native American
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