Utah Division of Indian Affairs seeks more accurate history education

by ANNE ROPER

“History is a race between education and catastrophe,” said writer and historian H.G. Wells. 

Forrest Cuch, executive director of the Utah Division of Indian Affairs, has been in the thick of that race for decades, and shows no signs of slowing his pace.

The importance of teaching accurate history is paramount for Cuch, an avid reader who can throw a book recommendation into any conversation.

He is dedicated to education and ensuring correct accounts of history be disseminated. A misinformed public can precipitate the disastrous result of repeating history’s mistakes, so Cuch’s work with the UDIA aims to prevent such a calamity.

“Democracy in this country hinges upon an educated public,” Cuch said.

Cuch’s biggest accomplishment in his career with the UDIA centered around educating the public, one small group at a time.  One hundred people took part in an empowerment training in the years 2002, 2003 and 2005. The training lasted 10 months and aimed to educate minorities in four sections: History, community developments and spirituality, physical health and mental health. 

The training, costing $90,000 to $100,000, became too expensive to continue. Cuch would like to do it again, if the money were available.

But the best place to start education is with children. Unfortunately, Cuch remembers his education to be inaccurate, even about his own people.

He recalls learning the history of his people in the K-12 system, then comparing it to his self-study after he graduated from high school. He found there were two histories, the one his teachers taught him and the one he had been taught by his parents.

“The teacher is an authority figure, so I thought my parents were lying,” Cuch said.

The path to the truth was not an easy one for Cuch.

“It did me trauma,” Cuch said. “Our people were here first. I had that understanding. All the information (taught in school) was painful to me.”

Nola Lodge, director of American Indian Teacher Education at the University of Utah and member of the Oneida Tribe of Wisconsin, says proper history has been neglected and in turn, everyone suffers.

“I think that in general, K-12 Indian history has been inadequate,” Lodge said. “There have been teachers who have tried to provide more information, but that is not the usual.”

This inadequate knowledge has damaged understanding between the American Indian people and their peers.

“At best we may get six to 10 pages in the early years of U.S. history, and then we disappear,” Lodge said. “Furthermore what is taught does not help anyone to understand us. We are depicted as slowing down progress, as savages and ignorant.”

But this lack of understanding from other cultures is coming from the same textbooks and teachers that are instructing American Indian students as well. They, too, suffer.

“For the American Indian, it is important for them to know the real history too.  Most Indians are taught in public schools whether on or near reservations, and they receive the same text and curriculum as non-Indians.” Lodge said.  “Consequently, there is a lack of knowledge and understanding by all.”

Teaching American Indian students in the same setting as their peers is a problematic situation, Cuch also believes.

“Our kids learn differently,” Cuch said. “The Indian world operates on feeling, this one works on intellect. There needs to be a balance.”

Lodge believes focusing on “federal Indian policy and subsequent events is crucial to understanding American Indian history” and is key for obtaining a fuller, more accurate U.S. history.

The big lesson to take from history, Cuch said, is humanity. Sometimes mistakes are made but shouldn’t necessarily be condemned.

Even after learning that American Indians were sometimes unfairly pegged as the “bad guys,” Cuch still resists playing the blame game. He also encourages white people to forgive their ancestors for the actions some took against the American Indians.

“It was just something that happened,” Cuch said. “But don’t blame yourselves entirely.”

Cuch continues to race against calamity with a love of history and education. But he has a trick to beat out his competition: He knows how to get the message out and into public knowledge.

“The best way to teach is out of love,” Cuch said. “Love is the best curriculum.”