Teaching Native American children in Utah

by ALLISON JOHNSON

Forrest S. Cuch, 57, executive director of the Utah Division of Indian Affairs, is a man with a mission to change the way Native children are educated in Utah.

Despite improvements in the state’s education system over the past decade, Native American children continue to struggle scholastically. With high drop-out rates and low test scores, they remain one of the lowest achieving minority groups in the state.  

LeAnn Johnson, 46, has been teaching high school math in Utah County for almost 20 years. During her years as a teacher, she has taught many Native American students and often finds herself frustrated and confused because they are not reaching their potential.

“I see so many of my [Native American] students drop out before they receive a diploma,” Johnson said. “The students that do graduate seldom go on to seek higher education. I wish these students would see how much potential they have.”

Cuch, an enrolled member of the Ute Indian Tribe, is also troubled that many Native American students are struggling academically.

“American Indians are the lowest achievers,” he said. “[They have] high drop-out rates, nearly 50 percent.”

Cuch has made it a priority to help improve Native American education in Utah. He believes there is a direct link between the quality of education and the quality of society.

“Education is important to building civilization, society,” he said. “Our future hinges on the education of our citizens.”

Through his job with the Utah Division of Indian Affairs, Cuch has worked to determine why some Native American children are not succeeding in school. He thinks one of the main reasons is because they learn differently.

“Indian children are different culturally. Our kids think differently,” he said. “The Indian world depends on feeling, the white world on intellect.”

Cuch stresses that Native American children learn better in interactive formats, and rely heavily on emotion and relationships. He said education today is often too rigid and ignores the individual needs and feelings of children. 

Teachers often don’t recognize the unique learning abilities of Native American children, he said, so they fall behind — not because they are not intelligent, but simply because they learn differently.

“We need to humanize education more. We have dehumanized it,” Cuch said. “The best way to teach is from the heart, from love. There is no better curriculum than love.”

Cuch said it is essential for Native American children to be educated about their history. Too often, this history is simply skimmed over in the classroom. And when it is covered, facts are often wrong and portray Native Americans in a demeaning or overly negative light.

He believes it is critical to a Native American child’s development to learn about their history in an accurate and positive manner. Children need to know their American Indian history in order to understand who they are.

“In many ways our history is alive and it still affects how we feel today,” he said. 

Cuch has worked on various projects to help improve the way children are educated in Utah.  He has worked with the American West Center to develop an accurate Native American history curriculum for Utah schools. He is also developing guides for teachers on how to teach Native American history.

Cuch said the government plays the most pivotal role in changing the way that Native American children are educated. He is an advocate of more funding for schools, better training for teachers and higher-quality schools on reservations. All of these improvements require the complete support of Utah’s government.

“We cannot have quality education without quality government,” Cuch said.

He believes he has an obligation to help improve the way the state prioritizes education.

“Our government is ours,” he said. “Democracy hinges on an educated government. If we don’t get involved in government it runs us.”