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Opinion Northwest

Join the informed writers of The Times' editorial board in lively discussions at our blog, Opinion Northwest.

February 2, 2015 at 6:00 AM

Why Washington schools fail to teach Native American history

This Native American bust adorns the top of the Cobb Building in Seattle. (Bettina Hansen / Seattle Times)

This Native American bust adorns the top of the Cobb Building in Seattle. (Bettina Hansen / Seattle Times)

When I first heard that Washington lawmakers proposed a law that would require public schools to teach Native American history, culture and government, my reaction was: why? This is 2015, not 1950! How is it possible that Washington – my dear, progressive home state – could be failing to teach important aspects of state history?

Well, it is possible and yes, the state does need a law that would essentially force school districts to do something they should be doing anyway. Read The Seattle Times editorial on the proposed law here.

I’m glad Washington lawmakers are tackling the issue, but I still wanted an explanation, so I asked various sources:

  • Robert Anderson, University of Washington Law School professor and director of the Native American Law Center: Teaching Indian history “is really embarrassing if it’s taught correctly,” he said. That’s because it includes the U.S. government’s attempts to eradicate native people and strip them of their land, rights and culture. “People are uncomfortable talking about it and have been historically,” said Anderson, who teaches an introductory-level class on Indian law at UW. “I just can’t tell you how often I have students come up to me and tell me I can’t believe I never learned about this in grade school, high school or college.”
  • Craig A. Bill, executive director of the Governor’s Office of Indian Affairs: Bill pointed out that many Washington residents don’t know that the state is home to 29 federally recognized Indian tribes. “People get older and say, ‘I didn’t learn this in school,’” he said. Besides not learning basic facts, many Washingtonians don’t learn how tribal governments work in the United States. As far as the efforts to integrate more curriculum, some schools say they lack funding and teaching staff to integrate the material or to train teachers.
  • Sen. John McCoy, D-Tulalip and member of the Tulalip Tribes: McCoy sponsored a state bill that passed in 2005 that “encouraged” Washington public schools to teach more Native American history. “Prior to this effort, what was being taught in the schools was about Plains Indians and (tribes) out East and nothing about the tribes in the state of Washington,” he said. “The state’s history is loaded with rich tribal history.” Not teaching students about tribal history – or histories of any of Washington’s ethnic communities – amounts to institutional racism, McCoy said. His father and grandfather spent time in Indian boarding schools, which were schools across the country that took Native Americans from their homes to be “civilized” and lose their cultural identity. He worries that Native students attend schools where they don’t see their history or culture represented. “(Native Americans) were valuable members of the Pacific Northwest history and they had lots to contribute and it should be recognized,” he said.
  • Sen. Steve Litzow, D-Mercer Island, chair of the Senate education committee and co-sponsor of 5433: State lawmakers looked into whether Native American history was being taught in public schools and found that in most schools, it was sorely lacking. “Part of it is inertia, part of it is that nobody has been talking about it,” said Litzow, a former school teacher.

Well, the good news is a conversation is starting. But, it’s one that should also take hold nationwide and include a deeper understanding of the history of Asian Americans, African Americans and Latinos, among others.

In Arizona, school administrators have been keeping Mexican-American studies out of schools and banning books. I wonder if they never learned that Arizona was once part of Spain and Mexico. If so, that’s a shame.

The more we can educate school kids and society about this nation’s history – the good and the bad – the better off and better informed we’ll all be.

Comments | Topics: Education, history, Native Americans

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