American Indians are undervalued because of miseducation

by BRYNN TOLMAN

  • Meet Nola Lodge and Forrest S. Cuch (slideshow best viewed in full-screen mode)

Many American Indians today say their culture and history have been lost. They are now fighting to restore truth to the curriculum.

For years, elementary school students have been taught that Columbus discovered a new land, America — a land of promise, a land of riches, a land of hope. But many American Indians do not find that promise, those riches or that hope. Instead, they reflect on the stories of their childhood education and cringe with feelings of hopelessness, confusion and displacement.

“The truth isn’t out there, you have to dig for it. … American Indians were always portrayed as in the way,” says Nola Lodge, professor of multicultural education at the University of Utah and a member of the Oneida Tribe of Wisconsin.

And marginalization for some creates privileges for others.

An article by Ruth Anne Olson titled, “White Privilege in Schools,” explains how today’s culture provides specific privileges to certain students. Olson lists many of these privileges, including, “My children take for granted that the color of any crayons, bandages, or other supplies in their classroom labeled ‘flesh’ will be similar to their own.” After listing several more of these privileges she writes, “My family never asked for these privileges; principals and teachers didn’t purposely create them for us; and, frankly neither they nor we have been consciously aware these privileges exist.” If the privileged students didn’t ask for the privileges, and the principals and teachers didn’t create them on purpose, and if no one has been consciously aware of the privileges, then why do they exist?

Lodge teaches classes on diversity so she is very aware of issues of privilege related to skin tone. She firmly believes that when children are taught early what difference is, their perceptions of who is valued changes. In addition, prejudice and stereotypes carry on into adulthood. She still experiences them today as a successful woman.

Lodge is helping to prepare many American Indian students begin their careers in education. It is not only important to get the truth about history out there, but to also get a variety of people teaching that history to help students understand difference at a young age, she says. When white students go to school they understand they can succeed. They see people just like themselves succeeding. The teachers know how to teach white students, they can relate. What about the other students? Children from different backgrounds learn differently and when they relate personally to their teacher, they succeed at a must faster rate.

“It should be K-12 students who should … accept that there is diversity. Difference is not change. This is why we need to change the curriculum,” Lodge says. She continues to tell a story from the Civil War, a subject commonly covered in history classes. When students learn about General Ulysses S. Grant they seldom learn that Ely Parker, his adjunct, his right-hand man, was a chief’s son and like Grant, an alumnus of West Point. They were equals in education. Their histories were equally important because they were both fighting for their country, for their land and for their beliefs. These small yet significant details are the ones left out of history books. These details are the ones that could give American Indian students, those fighting for recognition and truth, someone to emulate as they strive for success.

Forrest S. Cuch, executive director of the Utah Division of Indian Affairs, is very concerned about the education of children. Cuch, a member of the Ute Tribe, wants them to understand the truth about American Indians, but knows they often hear very little about Indians in school. In a recent interview he quoted Thomas Jefferson as saying, “Our democracy hinges upon an educated public.” Cuch explained that children are the future of the country. They are tomorrow’s leaders and when part of the history of their own country is omitted from history books, lessons and much needed education is left behind as well. He believes this knowledge is part of the identity of each student and without it some are getting lost.

“Without an education there is no identity, no foundation. If I am ashamed of my history or my people, if I am not part of my own culture, I am lost. If I am part of nothing then I lose that identity,” Cuch says. He believes that this identity is being taken away from all students today.

Lodge has also thought about her own identity and how the knowledge of the truth plays a part in it. She takes a different stand, however, saying, “[The truth] informs you about that identity. It doesn’t give you an identity.” Lodge understands that life and one’s own culture build who you are, and the knowledge acquired along the way adds to it.

The most important thing Lodge has learned through teaching multicultural education and American Indian education “is how much still needs to be done.” She knows there are ways to improve what is being taught in schools; she knows that with effort, the truth will get out there.

American Indians have a past that teaches all who are willing to learn. They hold the stories and the truths that history books have omitted. Cuch says his “original culture is hanging on, barely. But it is covered with layers and layers of scars.” Like Lodge, he knows that when the truth of American Indians is in the school curricula in Utah, those scars will fade and the culture that is slipping away will return and become stronger. “I am not hopeless,” Cuch says.