By Joe Hong, CalMatters
Sixteen-year-old Raven Casas recalled one English assignment where her teacher sent the students a link to a website called “Native American Artifacts.” The students had to select an artifact and write about its symbolism. But when Casas clicked on the link she found images of merchandise touting the Kansas City Chiefs pro football team.
“They were just things with Native American symbols on them, and they called them Native American artifacts,” she said. “I just educated him about how this was wrong and how this assignment was offensive.”
That’s why Native American students like Casas and tribal leaders are applauding a new law signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom last week. It establishes the California Indian Education Act, which encourages school districts to collaborate with local Native American tribes to develop history lessons and strategies for closing the achievement gap for Indigenous students. Local districts would then submit their task forces’ work to the state, helping California become an authority in serving Native American students.
Tribal leaders believe a better education in Indigenous history will not only enrich all students but also lead to better high school graduation rates and healthier lives for Native American youth.
“Educating our people kind of takes us out of the shadows,” said Casas. “It shines some light on the true side of things.”
Casas is a member of the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians, a Native American tribe based in San Bernardino County. Casas and her peers say that despite their own ancestral roots in the region, public schools have failed to educate students about their tribe’s history.
Casas said that instead of completing the artifact assignment, she turned in a message to her teacher educating him about her culture. She said she received no grade or feedback for the assignment. In fact, Casas said, the teacher never acknowledged her note to him. She said this new law might help eliminate other ill-informed assignments.
“I would like to shift the perspective of the curriculum to the Native American point of view,” Casas said.
Johnny Hernandez, the vice chairman of the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians who advocated for the new law, emphasized the importance of local history.
“It’s important because as California nations, every single tribal community has unique cultural identities,” Hernandez said. “It’s important for people to learn about native tribes in their regions.”
The new law was authored as a bill by California Assemblymember James Ramos of Rancho Cucamonga, the only Native American member in the state Legislature. This law would require task forces to submit annual reports to the California Department of Education, which would then submit a report to the Senate and Assembly Education Committees. Legislators would use these reports to inform future policies.
The bill was supported unanimously in the state Senate and Assembly. Teachers unions, the California Charter Schools Association and State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond all supported the legislation.
“We have to start at the local level,” Ramos said. “The goal is for that local knowledge to feed up to the state and you can have a clearinghouse of all the cultures in California”
Ramos, also a member of the San Manuel tribe, said the bill is long overdue. He remembers one of his own teachers asking him and his fellow tribal members to interpret a Native American drum song from a tribe outside of California. He said his teacher shamed him because he didn’t know how.
“We were told to sit down because we must not be Native American,”Ramos said.
Last year, when a Riverside high school teacher dressed up in a fake feather headdress and imitated a Native American chant to illustrate a math concept, the insensitivity felt familiar to Ramos. But today, there’s enough political momentum to better inform teachers and students and prevent future incidents.
And while the law doesn’t require districts to form task forces, Hernandez says it’s a step in the right direction.
“I’m hoping people are interested in doing the right thing,” he said. “Time will tell, but tribal people will never stop fighting for this.”
Hernandez said his tribe is still working on designing course materials for local districts, but he cited the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians as an example of a tribe that has already developed curricula. The tribe, based in Palm Springs, piloted a third-grade curriculum last year that taught students about tribal history, culture and land use.
The hands-on curriculum used real tribal artifacts to teach students about local customs. The program earned recognition from the Harvard University Project on American Indian Economic Development.
Hernandez said cultural ignorance can fuel cariactures like the incident in Riverisde, while a thoughtful curriculum can help Native American students form “a well-rounded view of who they are as a tribal person.” Hernandez hopes a stronger sense of identity will also translate into higher high school graduation rates.
In 2021, Native American students had a graduation rate of 73%, lower than any other racial or ethnic group except Black students. Less than a third of graduating Native American students completed the courses needed to attend a University of California or California State University, the lowest college-readiness rate among all races and ethnicities.
Hernandez said better education in one’s own culture and history can have ripple effects outside the classroom, especially within Native American communities that experience disproportionate rates of drug abuse and suicide.
“How do you help the whole student and not just the academic parts?” he said. “It’s about looking at the student in a well-rounded way.”
A richer history curriculum leads to less misunderstanding. Less misunderstanding leads to Native American students feeling like they belong on campus, Hernandez said.
“When people think about San Manuel they only think about casinos,” he said. “We have the opportunity to talk about what it means to be a tribal government.”
Hernandez’s 16-year-old son Gauge, who traveled to Sacramento to lobby for the bill before it became law, said his classmates stereotype Native Americans as wealthy casino owners.
“I feel like this happens every single week or month,” Gauge said. “As a Native American, they think all I am is a money machine.”
But Gauge and Casas both want young Californians to know how their people got to where they are today: the genocide and displacement that preceded the present success of some Native Americans.
“In the curriculum, it’s important to maintain our culture and identity,” Gauge said. “We need to see it in a better way.”
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