Salt Lake American Indian leader promotes more accurate teaching of history

by CHRIS MUMFORD

For an illustrative example of how American Indian culture impacts people every day, look no further than a plate of spaghetti.

Although typically associated with Italian culture, the pasta dish’s roots can actually be traced to America and Asia. Tomatoes, the key ingredient in marinara sauce, were first domesticated by American Indians and later shipped back to Europe, while noodles were originally created by Asian cultures.

The example, though seemingly trivial, is one of several used by Forrest S. Cuch, executive director of the Utah Division of Indian Affairs, to underscore a troubling pattern in popular interpretations of history: the tendency to diminish or, more often, ignore outright American Indians’ role in history.

“When I went to school, [the] message I got: Indians made no contributions to Western culture,” he said in an interview with students in a University of Utah reporting class.

This at least partly explains why American Indian students often feel “written out of history,” said Cuch, 57. His own school experience was marked by conflicts between what he was learning at school and what his parents were telling him at home.

“Right off, I didn’t feel good about school,” he said, citing examples of the incomplete, often inaccurate accounts of history he was taught, including the notion that Pilgrims, not Indians, found the wilderness and learned to survive largely without help.

As part of his lifelong quest to teach a version of history in which American Indians are accorded their proper significance, Cuch gives a PowerPoint presentation when he travels around the state. The slideshow, titled “Did You Know?” provides a broad overview of some of the most prominent American Indian achievements glaringly omitted from school textbooks and curricula including: evidence of writing that pre-dates the earliest known samples from other cultures, their early and advanced organized societies, and the fact that they’ve inhabited the Americas for at least 13,000 years.

But the effort to restore American Indians to their rightful place history is not in any way intended as a judgment on prevailing white or Anglo-American culture. On the contrary, white people have also suffered needlessly as a result of these same misconceptions of history, Cuch said.

“White people who don’t know the facts walk around with huge doses of guilt,” he said. In particular, he referred to the diseases introduced by white colonists that severely decimated American Indian populations, and urged that students “Don’t blame [yourselves] entirely for that – it wasn’t intentional.”

The idea that American Indians are often marginalized in the teaching of history is shared by RaDawn Pack, who teaches second grade at Brockbank Elementary School in Spanish Fork, Utah. What is less clear is what to do to change it.

Compared to when she began teaching 22 years ago, Pack said that currently she may teach even less about American Indians. But she did mention a few activities still taught today that feature American Indian culture.

On “Native American Day,” students rotate between four stations, each headed by one of Brockbank’s four second-grade teachers. At these stations students learn to mash corn, hunt for cranberries, learn about Indian hunting skills and string Froot Loop necklaces.

Students also read “Giving Thanks: A Native American Good Morning Message” by Jake Swamp, a Mohawk Chief. The illustrated book imparts a message of kindness and respect for nature.

And in fourth-grade classes, Brockbank students study Utah history curriculum that focuses on American Indians.

For his part, Cuch, who taught social studies 14 years ago at Wasatch Academy in Mt. Pleasant, Utah, acknowledges there has been an effort to teach more accurate versions of American Indian history. Yet he questions the validity of the historical facts that most Utah children grow up learning.

“Most of the history you’ve received in school is terribly inaccurate,” he said, going so far as to say that as much as 90 percent of what is taught is erroneous.

He called for more education and training at the collegiate level. And, as a member of the Ute Indian Tribe, Cuch has worked with the American West Center to develop his ancestors’ history into curriculum for Utah schools. He is also developing teacher guides on American Indian topics.

“Education is complex and it’s simple,” he said. “There’s no curriculum better than love. You have to teach from the heart with love.”