Unlearning Cultural Misrepresentation
As the new school year begins, Native students across the United States push for more accurate portrayals of their tribal cultures and histories in schools.
Student Blue Haase (Cherokee) in front of the Bartlesville Public Schools building in Oklahoma. Submitted photo.
It all started when Blue Haase was in third grade.
A student of Bartlesville Public Schools in Oklahoma, Blue Haase (Cherokee) decided he wanted to learn to powwow dance. Soon, he began growing his hair long. An elder made his dance regalia. He felt ready, but that’s when things started to change.
“Throughout that process, he just dealt with a variety of name-calling,” recalls his mother, Jessie Haase (Cherokee). “[His classmates] didn’t understand why he was growing his hair out, how he felt about his hair and what it symbolized for him.”
Jessie Haase, a mother of two, complained to her son’s teacher and school administrators, but “it was all treated in a very general way,” she says. “They said, ‘We don’t tolerate bullying,’ [and] ‘Kids can be mean.’
“But this was not just bullying,” Jessie Haase says. “This was all of these kids being uneducated [about Native Americans].”
The Haases’ story sheds light on a common experience for Native families across the country: a lack of history, understanding and awareness of Native American cultures in schools. As the new school year gets underway, it’s just one issue on a much greater list of challenges facing Native students today.
Now 15, Blue Haase is much more vocal in his classrooms about what is being taught, but it remains a problem beyond his school.
Bella Cornell (Choctaw) of McLoud, Okla., says she became angry when her eighth-grade history teacher described Native people as “violent” and “vermin.”
She says he also failed to offer any sort of Native perspective on subjects like Christopher Columbus and the Oklahoma land runs, which opened Indian lands to white settlers beginning in 1889.
“It’s really sad that even our teachers aren’t giving us a two-sided perspective on these topics in school,” says Bella Cornell, 17. “A lot of [students] are hearing this information for the first time. This will be what they know, so it’s disheartening to have teachers give an inaccurate representation of Indigenous peoples.”
But the issue doesn’t end with insensitive teachers. According to a report by the National Indian Education Association, 87 percent of the limited references to Native Americans in U.S. textbooks only portray them up to the year 1900, with few or no mentions of contemporary issues.
Indian education advocates say ignoring Native American culture and history does a disservice to Native students and their success. Nationally, Native students perform two to three grade levels below their white peers in reading and mathematics, according to a 2013 report titled The State of Education for Native Students by the Education Trust.
The report also found Native students were 207 percent more likely to be expelled and 237 percent more likely to drop out of school than were white students.
Social studies and language arts teacher Shana Brown (Yakama) says Native students aren’t the only ones left behind.
“Aside from [textbooks] just being factually wrong, it serves to disengage not only Native students, but all students of color,” Brown says. “If teachers are teaching Native history without cultural regard, you’re darn sure they’re doing that with other underrepresented groups.”
Last year, Brown co-authored Washington State’s newly required tribal history curriculum, Since Time Immemorial: Tribal Sovereignty in Washington State. Recognized for her work by the U.S. Department of Education, Brown is helping to integrate Native history into the American history curriculum in Seattle Public Schools, the largest school district in Washington.
Washington is only the second state to require a tribal history curriculum in schools, with the other being Montana.
Some individual public school districts offer more in-depth, tribally-specific curriculum. The Sioux Falls School District in South Dakota, for instance, provides students with Native American Connections, which is modeled after Montana’s Indian Education for All curriculum. Modern issues impacting tribal people, as well as the histories and practices of South Dakota’s nine tribes are taught, as is the Lakota language.
Despite the progress, there remains an amazing need, Brown says.
“It is not the question whether to include tribal history and sovereignty or be culturally aware of the needs of students; it’s a question of how it can be accomplished,” Brown says. “It’s the teachers who need to become self-aware and the districts who hold them to that, so they can be responsive to students’ unique needs.”
Making an Impact
Concerned by the influence her teacher could have on her peers, Bella Cornell shared her experiences in late 2014 at one of nine tribal listening sessions organized by the White House Initiative on American Indian and Alaska Native Education. Established by President Barack Obama in 2011, the initiative works to improve educational outcomes for Native students.
Across seven states, more than 1,000 advocates, teachers, families and students shared their stories of humiliation, anger and frustration at schools overlooking the cultural needs of Native students.
Student Bella Cornell (Choctaw) in front of her school in McLoud, Oklahoma. Submitted Photo.
“For students and parents, it’s hard to be able to share some of these stories,” says Bella Cornell’s mother, Sarah Cornell. “Some of them are humiliating and embarrassing, and some of them are really sad and have had really adverse effects on our children, whether it’s emotional distress, depression or grades really going down. All of this has an impact.”
Educators and advocates alike say that impact has created a sense of hopelessness among today’s Native youth. It was a feeling apparent to U.S. Secretary of Education John B. King during a visit to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota in May.
“It was clear that a lack of opportunity, substance-abuse challenges and the rash of suicides in the community have contributed to the sense of hopelessness,” King says, “but you can also see in the schools a sense that teachers were trying to make it better.”
King, along with William Mendoza (Oglala and Sicangu Lakota), executive director of the White House Initiative on American Indian and Alaska Native Education, toured Pine Ridge’s Red Cloud and Wolf Creek schools to listen to the effects that these issues have had on Native students.
“One of the things that was noticeable at both Red Cloud and Wolf Creek was the power of Lakota language and culture to help combat that hopelessness and give students a sense of community and hope about the future,” King says. “There are some promising initiatives and opportunities, but I would say that the progress is not nearly fast enough and there’s lots of work to do.”
In recent years, the Obama administration has devoted more resources to improving education and cultural opportunities for Native students, as well as giving tribes more control of schools and curriculum. The 2017 tribal budget has called for investment in the Bureau of Indian Education reforms aimed at improving teacher quality, renovating school facilities and streamlining operations.
Some educators argue that perhaps what is most affecting Native student success is the continued use of stereotypical Native mascots. The issue has become a controversial topic, but it’s one that has direct ties to decreased self-esteem, high dropout rates and a lost sense of cultural identity, according to the American Psychological Association and many peer-reviewed scientific studies.
Mendoza says Native mascots are inextricably tied to education when it comes to Native student achievement, bullying and suicide.
“Any of those outcomes, and our challenges in being able to address those, are directly linked to this issue of mascots and logos, because people don’t see our value when they look at historical images of us,” Mendoza says. “It’s dramatically misunderstood. Many people don’t understand the impacts it has on the subconscious.”
Engaging the Community
Mendoza added that the biggest steps forward in improving Native education could be made when educators take time to listen to student concerns and seek input from tribal communities.
In fact, after the White House listening tour, Oklahoma City Public Schools administrators removed land-run reenactments from their history curriculum. School board members also voted to change the district’s Capitol Hill High School mascot from the R-skins to the student body-supported Red Wolves last December after members of the Native American community spoke out against it.
“School boards, leaders and teachers need to go to these communities and find mechanisms regularly to engage these communities,” Mendoza says. “It’s not a once-a-year kind of engagement; it needs to happen on a regular [basis] and maybe even intensively to build trust with students and families.”
In Bartlesville, Blue Haase and his family are advocating for the district to recognize Indigenous Peoples’ Day next year. He’s also working to create a Native American club for students in his high school.
This last academic year, he also found success when his teacher asked him to share his Native perspective with the class, a small but empowering request.
“I felt like a teacher myself, like a leader,” Blue Haase says. “It felt good to be able to stand up and teach other kids my age the true facts.”
Recommendations for state and local school districts to increase Native student achievement outcomes:
- Support Native American languages. As a foundation to providing a better environment for Native students, where appropriate, states and school districts should support the preservation and revitalization of Native languages and the worldviews embedded in them. One way this could be done is through in-school and out-of-school programs and credit-bearing coursework.
- Promote positive school discipline and policies that encourage effective and culturally responsive strategies for avoiding inequitable application of suspensions and expulsions. Examples include peer-to-peer mediation and restorative justice.
- Address teacher and school staff attitudes and behavior. Encourage educators and school staffs nationwide to complete cultural competence training to better understand the cultural, social, linguistic, and historical context AI/AN students bring with them to school.
- Promote cultural awareness. Promote the accurate instruction of Native American history and culture to all school staffs and create initiatives for parents and tribal leaders to engage with students. States and districts should analyze resources, strategies, and professional development opportunities to ensure that tribal histories are included accurately.
- Analyze mascots and imagery. States and local school districts should consider the historical significance and context of Native school mascots and imagery in determining whether they have a negative effect on students, including Native American students. States and districts should also work with schools to develop and implement actions to change potentially harmful imagery and symbolism present in their student environments.
From the U.S. Department of Education, White House Initiative on American Indian and Alaska Native Education, School Environment Listening Sessions Final Report, Washington, D.C., 2015.
Mallory Black (Navajo) is from Salt Lake City, Utah, and currently resides in San Diego, California. She earned a master’s degree in journalism from Northwestern University and is a former National Press Foundation fellow. She is a freelance journalist and a communications specialist for Student Affairs at San Diego State University. Check out her portfolio of work at mblack47portfolio.wordpress.com and tweet her @mblack47.