Nebraska public schools must do a better job of teaching about the true history and contributions of Native Americans, according to organizers of a newly formed Nebraska Indian Education Association.
Draft social studies standards, unveiled this month, fall short of what’s needed, organizers said.
Organizers would like to see the standards do more to combat misconceptions and put greater emphasis on local tribes, not just iconic national events.
Schools should teach about the concept of tribal sovereignty, Indian science and horticulture, and about the centuries before European settlement when their civilization thrived, they said.
The draft standards detail what Nebraska kids should know and be able to do in social studies. Currently up for public comment, the standards were written by a team of Nebraska educators.
“They made an effort. We give them a C for effort,” said Marian Holstein, a Winnebago Public Schools board of education member and one of the association’s incorporators.
Teaching about tribal history would promote empathy and understanding in non-native students, reducing ignorance and bigotry that persists in Nebraska communities, they said.
It would also help address an “identity crisis” suffered by many native youths that contributes to their academic struggles, they said.
“It’s unbelievable that my 10-year-old son would spend a week on the Holocaust in Germany, but they have zero understanding why the tribes are where they’re at,” said Derek LaPointe, executive officer of the Santee Sioux Nation tribal council and one of the association organizers. “He has no idea who his own peoples are, other than what I tell him.”
John Witzel, president of the Nebraska State Board of Education, said he’s glad the group is raising concerns now.
The Nebraska Department of Education is taking public input on the standards.
“We appreciate their inputs, and are going to seek more inputs, and we’ve got time to make changes, adjustments, revisions, whatever’s necessary,” he said.
He said the draft standards mention Native American topics multiple times, but “it’s pretty general,” he said.
He said he has accepted an invitation from Holstein to meet Tuesday in Winnebago.
The association incorporated this year in response to persistently low achievement by Native America youths in Nebraska public schools. One in five American Indian eighth-graders scored proficient on the most recent state math assessment. Their performance in English language arts is similar.
Creation of the association was also prompted by Congress’ 2015 passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act. Federal law now requires local school districts to consult with affected tribes on education matters.
Organizers say they intend to provide a voice for the Omaha, Winnebago, Ponca and Santee Sioux; they also are reaching out to other tribes.
An American Indian education association previously operated in Nebraska from 1987 to 2006, according to Holstein, who was involved in that one, too. But it “fizzled out,” she said.
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As written, the draft standards don’t overlook Native Americans.
There are multiple references. One standard calls on high school students to examine historical events from the perspectives of marginalized and underrepresented groups, including Native American nations.
The draft specifically mentions the Indian Removal Act, the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934, the Trail of Tears, Indian boarding schools and Plains tribes’ use of the buffalo.
Holstein said she wishes the standards were stronger.
“There’s never been teaching about our native people, and how intelligent we were,” she said. “It’s always been the savages, the heathens, that we were less than men. That has trickled down.”
She said that when the culture is denigrated, it affects the self-esteem of the native kids.
“Children these days grow up with complexes,” LaPointe said, especially those who call themselves “urban Indians.”
“They still understand their lineage,” he said. “They identify themselves as Native American. But they have a complex that is severe.”
LaPointe said the identity crisis can push the native kids to seek acceptance elsewhere.
“So many times, you’ll see our children go into those gang cultures, because they accept them,” he said. “They take them on right in and use them.”
LaPointe said much of what’s taught in schools focuses on the period of disruption, relocation and war after 1850.
“That’s a blink of an eye in the lifetime of the tribe,” he said.
Native Americans were civilized and had their own governments, and it was not a stroke of luck they survived so long, he said.
The stories of the tribes need to be included, he said.
“It doesn’t have to be long and drawn out, but at least rewind it to who we are, and start there,” LaPointe said.
Teachers will often focus on certain events such as the Battle of the Little Bighorn, the Massacre at Wounded Knee or the Trail of Tears, while overlooking tragic and instructive events closer to home, he said.
“They so much focus on Oklahoma and the Trail of Tears, but we’ve all had our share of the Trail of Tears,” he said.
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