By Félix Pérez, photo above of Alaska Native teacher Kristi McEwen with Native dance paraphernalia.
Information about Native Americans is either completely absent from public schools or relegated to brief mentions, inaccurate portrayals or negative stereotypes, concludes a groundbreaking analysis of state efforts to deliver high quality, contemporary and tribally specific educational content about Native peoples into K-12 classrooms.
“The invisibility of Native peoples and the erasure of contemporary Native Americans’ contributions, innovations, and accomplishments in K-12 education fuels harmful biases in generation after generation of Americans who grow up learning a false, distorted narrative about Native Americans in most schools,” according to the report by the National Congress of American Indians.
Based on a literature review, interviews and a survey of the 35 states with federally recognized tribal nations, analysis results included:
- Less than half of the states reported that they require Native American curricula that is specific to tribal nations in their state;
- Two-thirds of the 28 states that responded to the survey do not allocate funding for Native American curricula;
- Less than half (43 percent) of the states surveyed reported that Native American curriculum is required to be taught in K-12 schools; and
- Two-thirds of states stated they receive no funding to implement Native American curricula.
“I came straight from the village, with a very heavy native accent and a strong sense of cultural identity. In the new school, I did not see a single teacher or person of Alaska Native descent.”– Kristi McEwen
Alaska Native teacher
Fairbanks, Alaska, elementary school teacher Kristi McEwen, was not surprised at the report’s findings. McEwen, a Yup’ik, recalled the culture shock she underwent when she moved as a child from a predominantly Yup’ik school in Bethel, a village, to a school in Fairbanks, the state’s second-largest city.
“When I was a kid, our village was mostly Alaskan Natives, mostly Yup’ik people. My classmates were mostly Native Alaskan students. Every week we’d have Yup’ik class, which was taught by an Alaska Native teacher. My grandmother worked in the kitchen, and she was a baker, and our lunch was homemade food. There was never a feeling of not belonging,” she said.
“I came straight from the village, with a very heavy native accent and a strong sense of cultural identity. In the new school, I did not see a single teacher or person of Alaska Native descent in my school,” she continued.
“In Yup’ik culture, the community comes first. It’s very group minded. The skills that you’re developing are skill sets that will benefit the group, the whole. In western culture, it’s very individualized, and it’s very self-promoting. To be successful you have to have that strong drive to promote yourself. You know, lots of independent work, lots of standing up and doing reports in front of the whole class. And for an Alaskan Native student, that can be very, very scary because that is not a part of your culture.”
Another educator, Danielle Riha, the 2019 Alaska Teacher of the Year, knows all too well the lack of a curriculum that incorporates a contemporary and accurate view of the Indigenous people of Alaska. Her response: “I helped write the curriculum for seventh and eighth grade, and for our whole school,” said Riha, who helped to develop and open the Alaska Native Cultural Charter School in Anchorage, a public charter school.
Riha, a Texas native, first encountered the absence of culturally relevant curriculum when she began teaching 19 years ago in a remote subsistence community in rural Alaska. There, she said, she learned the value of culturally responsive teaching that incorporates indigenous knowledge. She developed a reading program that included Yup’ik elders in the classroom. “I just put away the boxed curriculums, and brought elders into the classroom to teach oral storytelling. That’s how I taught the elements of literature, through oral stories.
“I just put away the boxed curriculums, and brought elders into the classroom to teach oral storytelling. That’s how I taught the elements of literature, through oral stories.”– Danielle Riha
2019 Alaska Teacher of the year
“What drove me to do that was that we were reading stories and doing math problems and word problems about things that my students had never experienced. For instance, the kids had never seen or been on an elevator or an escalator. They didn’t know what a curb was, or a screen door. And I didn’t have an internet link to show them.”
The result, recalled Riha, was seeing students “completely checked out. They weren’t connected to the curriculum. They didn’t see themselves in the curriculum. Their history was not in our books. Their history was not being taught to them. It made it seem like they didn’t have any value.”
The title of the National Congress of American Indians’ report, “Becoming Visible,” has a particular resonance for Jeremy Rouse, an achievement gap intervention specialist for Spokane, Wash., schools, where more than 126 tribes are represented.
A member of the Ihanktonwan Nakota tribe in South Dakota, Rouse recounted his experience as a student.
“I remember in 11th grade having an argument with my social studies teacher because we had been studying the Civil War and we had gotten behind in the unit. So he was just going to skip over the westward expansion period of time.
“I think those kind of experiences have a deep, deep impact on our students in a way that they aren’t even necessarily aware of. They’re always surrounded by all these false images of who Native people are. That isn’t reflective of who they are, and they think that somehow the fault lies with them that they don’t look Native enough, or that they haven’t been to their homelands, or they don’t speak their language.”
He continued, “People don’t mean it in a negative way, but when a student shares that they’re Native, and a teacher looks — you know there’s a face they kind of make, like how they turn their head a little bit – ‘Oh I didn’t know you were Native’ or ‘Oh I didn’t know they were Native.’ ” And that seems innocent enough, but what that is loaded with is that they have a stereotype in their head of what a Native person is.
“They’re always surrounded by all these false images of who Native people are. That isn’t reflective of who they are, and they think that somehow the fault lies with them…”– Jeremy Rouse
Achievement gap intervention specialist
“Contemporary Native people aren’t just long black hair, high cheekbones, and brown skin. Native people come in all shapes. And those stereotypes cause a lot of struggle with our students in terms of figuring out who they are.”
To counteract the negative images, Rouse, like fellow McEwen and Riha, looks for ways to celebrate and value students’ culture. One example he points to is a yearly dinner open to Native and non-Native students, their families and the community.
‘We do it intentionally the week before Thanksgiving. We just had our fourth one. The idea is to put forward foods that are indigenous to this continent, foods that are pre-European expansion.”
Rouse added, “We don’t have beef or poultry. We only use natural sweeteners, very, very little salt. Every year I have to explain there’s not going to be frybread, because the origin of frybread comes from when we didn’t have access to traditional hunting and gathering, and agricultural practices, and we were reliant on the government food rations.
“So a big part of the dinner is breaking those stereotypes. The students drum, and we offer a prayer. It causes them to rethink their ideas about Native people and what Native foods are. And it exposes kids — especially these kids who are living in an urban environment, who don’t have access to their homeland, or haven’t been to their homelands, or have severed connections with their culture for a number of reasons – to really doing something hands-on that connects them to their history and their culture, and causes them to think about, ‘Where do I come from?’
“Also, I always try to get the kids out to do some gathering too, because that’s where a lot of the learning happens. The community partners will donate elk and moose and bison and salmon and squash.
“It’s been really important to me to have it at the school. We really indigenize that space, dictated by our own culture and our own norms. Even if it’s just for a few hours, those students see it, know that the space belongs to them.”
The extraordinary efforts taken by educators such as Rouse, McEwen and Riha to connect their students to their culture through the curriculum, their history, their contributions and their traditions have made a difference. But as the “Becoming Visible” report points out, “Even though some exceptional efforts are happening around the country to bring accurate, culturally responsive, tribally specific, and contemporary content about Native Americans into mainstream education systems, much works remains to be done.”