How schools can have culturally relevant celebrations of Native American heritage
October 31, 2022
The following article was written by Michael Tapia.
In 1990, President George H. W. Bush approved a joint resolution designating November as National American Indian Heritage Month, which has evolved into National Native American Heritage Month. Since 1995, every subsequent U.S. president has issued annual proclamations designating November as time to celebrate the cultures, accomplishments and contributions of America’s original peoples.
There are 574 federally recognized Native American tribes in the U.S., with 109 of them living in California. While the inclusion of all peoples in the curriculum and learning environments should be a year-round experience providing mirrors and windows for all of our students, consider this annual month-long observance in November as an opportunity to delve more deeply into the contributions and achievements of Native Americans.
This year, National Native American Heritage Month takes on added importance in California with the recent approval of several pieces of legislation in support of California Native communities, promoting equity, inclusion and accountability throughout the state. Among the bills signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom on Sept. 23, 2022, AB 1703 (California Indian Education Act) encourages LEAs and charter schools to form California Indian Education Task Forces with local tribes to develop curricular materials to be used with LEAs. These materials will reflect tribal experiences and perspectives and will teach about their history, culture and government. In addition, instructional materials will be reviewed for accuracy and appropriateness, and LEAs will be encouraged to use the developed curriculum for the benefit of both Native and non-Native students. Finally, the task forces will identify the extent and nature of the achievement gap between Native and non-Native students and suggest strategies needed to close it. Please keep in mind that the FAIR Act also identifies Native Americans as a group to be included in the social sciences.
In 2018, the National Council for the Social Studies drafted “Toward Responsibility: Social Studies Education that Respects and Affirms Indigenous Peoples and Nations.” Included in this important document are seven principles to guide social studies education:
1. Commit to responsible representations. Educators must challenge racist stereotypes, misrepresentations and caricatures of Indigenous life, emphasizing the diversity of Indigenous peoples and nations, offering diverse representations of Indigenous life, using specific names of Indigenous Peoples and Nations, and focusing on contemporary people and issues.
2. Teach current events and movements. There are many Indigenous Nations fighting to protect their lands and resources; use this as an opportunity to provide students with lessons based on the environment/science, government, history, economics, cultural studies and civics.
3. Teach tribal governance and sovereignty as civics education. Indigenous Peoples have dual citizenship as citizens and descendants of tribal nations. Teach about dual citizenship, governance, self-determination and sovereignty; teach about treaties and legislation that has resulted in positive or negative results.
4. Challenge Eurocentrism. Curricula often reinforce Eurocentric perspectives as neutral or universal truths. Reconsider how units of study, holidays and literature reinforce false perspectives. Incorporate critical thinking and multiple perspectives when discussing topics related to discovery, exploration or expansion.
5. Affirm Indigenous knowledges. Indigenous knowledges are diverse, complex, localized systems and are often misrepresented and/or narrowly discussed in mainstream curricula. Utilize the perspectives of local tribal leaders, elders and communities to counter Eurocentric perspectives and foster new perceptions and new possibilities.
6. Learn from long standing Indigenous advocacy for curriculum reform. There are a number of states including Washington, Montana, Hawaii and Oregon that have passed social studies legislation that supports greater responsibility for Native American curricula. Educators should also seek partnerships with local Indigenous Peoples and Indigenous educators.
7. Foster relationships and engage in meaningful consultation. Educators should reach out to local tribe leaders; districts and states can hire liaisons to improve social studies curriculum.
Among the many Native American resources available for educators, there are a number of them offering dos and don’ts. Here are just a few:
  • Do use respectful and appropriate language when teaching about Native Americans and discontinue the use of inaccurate words like s*v*ges, conquest, massacre, brave, sq*w and papoose, and phrases like Indian giver, wild Indians, wagon burners, sit Indian style or have a powwow.
  • Don’t employ activities that trivialize Native dress, dance or ceremony; no masks, headdresses, or assigning Indian names or tribes.
  • Do include the use of books and materials written by Native authors; use books and other resources to provide honest accounts of events involving Native Americans.
  • Do recognize students’ Indigenous identities, but do not ask them to speak for their race; don’t assume students are not Native American based on their name or physical appearance; recognize that not all Native children know about their heritage or may be uncomfortable sharing about it.
There is a body of evidence that proposes that students perform better academically and are more strongly motivated to achieve when provided with culturally relevant materials and instruction. As you visit classrooms and observe lessons this school year, please recognize the importance of appropriate and accurate mirrors and windows, and the role they play in the success of our students. Thank you for being willing to challenge student activities that promote false narratives about our Native American students and communities, present and past.
Michael Tapia is a retired principal from Ventura USD.
Resource Guide
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