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.

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.”

Educators concerned about Utah American Indian dropouts

by JAMIE A. WELCH

During the 2003-04 school year, just 377 American Indians in Utah graduated from high school while 26,976 white students graduated. According to the 2005 U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Common Core of Data, in the 2003-04 school year, 6.4 percent of Utah’s American Indian students in grades 9 through 12 dropped out of high school before graduating. This contrasts with Utah’s white students, whose dropout rate was 3 percent.

Because American Indians comprise just 2 percent of Utah’s population, this dropout rate raises concerns for the educational and occupational future of American Indians. Among those concerned is Forrest S. Cuch, director of Utah’s Division of Indian Affairs.

Cuch, born in 1951 on the Uintah and Ouray Ute Indian Reservation, is a member of the Ute Indian Tribe. He studied at public schools until the 9th grade, when he enrolled in Wasatch Academy, a private college-prep school in Mt. Pleasant, Utah. He then attended Westminster College and graduated in 1973 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in behavioral sciences.

He supports private schools and credits his educational background, private schooling, to his earned occupational position. Cuch knows why American Indians have a high dropout rate. It is because “we [American Indians] come to school illiterate.” Illiterate in the ways outside of the American Indian lifestyle, that is.

Cuch’s concern is that Utah’s public school teachers don’t know how to teach American Indian children. There is an important difference in the way America’s majority is taught and the way American Indians are taught. Cuch explained that when American Indian students attend public schools for the first time, they are taken from a nurturing environment and expected to perform exactly as their peers of other races do. This causes frustration in the part of the educator and also of the student.

Cuch describes the typical classroom’s learning styles as patriarchal, analytical, competitive, controlling of nature, detail-oriented and ultimately scientific. In contrast, American Indian ways are matriarchal, holistic, cooperative, dedicated to living in harmony with nature, focused on a larger scheme and very spiritual. He emphasized that American Indian children are raised in a different world – one in which they are given the freedom to learn in their own style. When these children are placed in this unfamiliar environment, their performance levels will differ from other children. Cuch noted that the American Indian students gradually lose interest in a world that confuses them and places pressure to compete.

He suggested, “The better way to teach our kids is in a smaller classroom where they can work in groups.” He also said each child needs more individual attention. Having witnessed firsthand the way public schools handle the specific needs of American Indian students, Cuch observed “there is an effort but it is not enough.”

Nola Lodge, a clinical instructor and director of American Indian Teacher Education at the University of Utah, also has an opinion on the education of American Indian youth. In an e-mail interview, Lodge agreed with Cuch in that “teachers are not prepared to work with AI [American Indian] students.  Consequently they [students] do not reach their potential.” Lodge also worries that public school systems don’t give an accurate representation of American Indian history. The reason, she notes, is “teachers cannot teach what they do not know or understand.”

American Indians in Utah have a few alternative options to attending public schools. The Uinta River High School in Fort Duchesne is open for grades 9 through 12 where the student to teacher ratio is 10-to-1. Schools like this offer more one-on-one interactions between teachers and students, thus employing Cuch’s idea of smaller classrooms. Smaller schools are available, but are they enough? Cuch says no, that the teaching style is what should be stressed. “The best way to teach is out of love.” Lodge agrees that love is a key element. “To educate any child,” she says, “we must foster a love of learning.”

Until public schools offer better programs for American Indian students, Cuch recommends private and charter schooling for Native children, where class sizes are smaller and curriculum is more flexible.