American Students Think Native Americans Are All Dead

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When education professor Sara Shear looked at academic standards for elementary and secondary schools in all 50 states, she found that a staggering 87 percent of references to Native Americans portrayed them as a population only existing before 1900.

“[Students] were coming into college believing that all Indians are dead,” she said. Perhaps this explains the general comfort in dressing up as Indians for Halloween, turning them into team mascots, and their overall lack of exposure in the media.

Aside from the Thanksgiving and Columbus Day narrative—still presented as an inevitable clash that the colonizers handled reasonably—little to nothing is said on the contemporary issues Native Americans are facing. “Nothing about treaties, land rights, water rights. Nothing about the fact that tribes are still fighting to be recognized and determine sovereignty,” Shear said.

New Mexico is the only state to even mention the name of a single member of the American Indian Movement; in fact, half the states don’t even name specific tribes or individual natives (the most common being Sacagawea, Squanto, Sequoyah, and Sitting Bull). Washington is the only state to use the word “genocide” when referring to the natives (to their fifth graders), and Nebraska’s textbooks go so far as to portray Natives as lazy, drunk, or criminal, Shear found.

“This kind of curriculum, these misconceptions—all that has led to the invisibilization of indigenous people,” said Tony Castro, a social studies education professor who assisted in Shear’s research project. While curriculum guidelines fail in their Native American coverage, he was disappointed to find that teachers didn’t tailor their lesson plans to the truth. “What we teach acts as a mirror to what we value and what we recognize as legitimate. These standards are perpetuating a misconception and are continuing to marginalize groups of people and minimize the concerns or issues those people have about being full citizens in the American democracy.”

Image by wsilver, licensed under Creative Commons.

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