Education

Becoming Visible: Most states education standards don’t require Native American history past 1900, but that’s beginning to change

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In so many states, Native American history, cultures, and issues are rarely talked about in schools—and when they are, it is usually in the context of something that happened hundreds of years ago. A new report by the National Congress of American Indians notes that 87 percent of state curricula do not mention Native American history after the year 1900. “Native peoples are invisible to most Americans,” as the report says.

But fortunately, that’s changing. According to the report, 90 percent of states say that they are currently working to improve the quality of and access to Native American education curriculum. Some states are ahead of the curve, like Washington, which has mandated since 2015 that history, culture, and government are taught with input from the state’s 29 federally recognized indigenous tribes.

Michael Vendiola, education director for the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community, explained to U.S. News & World Report how important this type of curriculum expansion can be for Native students: “For Native people, it’s a matter of having their story told and being accurate and having a local perspective. … It severely impacts the success of tribal students in the public school system because most of the time (what is taught comes from) a very narrow point of view—totem poles from Alaska or a bit of Navajo ceremonies. There are over 500 tribes in the U.S. which are clearly more diverse than that.”

Shana Brown, an educator in Seattle, told The Stranger that non-Native students get a lot out of the more comprehensive teachings too: “When we start these lessons, their eyes are widely open. … ‘Why didn’t we know this? How is it that I’ve reached the eighth grade and haven’t heard any of this?’”

States and localities are making efforts to reverse the erasure of Native peoples in other arenas too. For example, some are passing resolutions to change the name of Columbus Day to Indigenous People’s Day as a way to get people to think about the reality of our country’s history.

Along with curriculum overhauls, these kinds of changes can help Americans increase their awareness—because as the Becoming Visible report states, 72 percent of Americans rarely see or hear anything about Native Americans. Parents and children can use this moment as an opportunity to expand our limited perspectives and learn something new.


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Joanna Eng is a freelance writer and editor, Lambda Literary Fellow, and co-founder of Dandelions, a parenting and social justice newsletter. She lives with her wife and child in the New York City area, where she is constantly seeking out slivers of nature. You can find her on Twitter @joannamengland.