Addressing “Anti-Indian” Historical Bias in California Public Schools Through Best Practices

Sabine Nicole Talaugon, MPP 2013
In California, K-12 public school curriculum often distorts and underrepresents American Indian history, culture, and governance. This historical bias is inherited from materials in the past that sought to justify the genocide, indentured servitude, forced relocation and forced educational assimilation of American Indian and Alaska Native (AIAN) people. Historical bias in public education is a violation of America’s unique fiduciary duty to AIAN people, and contributes to low educational achievement among AIAN Students. This article is based on a “better practices analysis” performed in 2013, which examined Montana, Washington, New Mexico and Minnesota’s policy approaches to the problem of historical bias. This analysis evaluated whether these approaches could work in California, focusing on teacher education and training.  The analysis concludes with policy and advocacy recommendations with respect to the most promising ways to reform the American Indian education policies and curricula in California. The report was written for the California Indian Museum and Cultural Center (CIMCC), whose purpose is to educate the public about the history, culture and contemporary life of California Indians and to honor their contributions to civilization.
The Problem of Anti-Indian Historical BiasAlthough the education system has experienced significant gains in reducing blatant racism in social science and history curriculum, lessons often continue to be historically biased by affirming the histories and cultural practices of Euro-American culture, and delegitimizing the histories and cultural practices of AIAN people through omission, misrepresentation, and simplification of information regarding American Indians.[1] Historical bias persists in part because of the way that history and social science texts inherit the sentiments of previous texts. The majority of nineteenth century journalists wrote with strong anti-Indian sentiments and stereotypes and these accounts are often the basis for history research, so the anti-Indian imagery continues in many contemporary textbooks.[2]

 Figure 1:  Excerpt from History of California (1866)

Figure 1: Excerpt from History of California (1866)

Stereotypes about American Indian people have developed in response to the United States government’s goals and actions. The notion that indigenous people of the land that is now America were inferior and even “childish” compared to European settlers, justified the “doctrine of discovery” and “manifest destiny” concepts that lead to coerced relocation through treaties, among other destructive policies.[3] Some of the most degrading stereotypes were created during the California Gold Rush and “westward expansion.” This stereotype justified genocidal policies, such as federal troops and agents killing Indians to make land available to settlers, and created the public sentiment that it was honorable for pioneers to kill Indians,[4] but outside of attempts to protect their land, homes, and communities, there is no evidence that Indians made unprovoked war upon settlers.[5] After most American Indian people were isolated to reservations and other Indian lands, American sentiments towards AIANs moved toward the idea of the “noble savage”.[6] This stereotype serves to dignify AIAN people enough to justify the discontinuation of blatantly genocidal policies and acknowledge that they deserve small portions of land, but that they remain “savages” that need to erase their culture and assimilate into the dominant culture. To address historical bias is a fundamental change from previous educational patterns, as AIAN people have been historically targeted by explicit and implicit assimilation policies, including forced boarding school attendance that sought to “kill the Indian, and save the man.”[7]

Materials often present indigenous people as inferior because social science and history curricula often seek to justify current society, focus on success, and instill a sense of patriotism.[8] In short, historical narratives have been crafted to show the dominant, Eurocentric culture and governance in a positive light. Many textbooks say that the purpose of Spanish missionaries was to “improve” the lives of native people, this motivation requires that California Indian people’s religions, cultural values, economies and governing structures needed to be “civilized” by European people. Consider the following excerpt from this 2007 textbook, California Vistas: Our Golden State (2007): “Spanish missionaries wanted to teach the Native American people Christianity. The missionaries also wanted to change the Native American way of life—changes that they thought would improve the lives of the Native Americans.” In fact, the primary motive of missionaries was not to improve Indians’ lives, but control the natural resources and human capital to build the Spanish empire in America.

The same textbook also states: “Native Americans came to live at the missions for different reasons. Curiosity about the Spanish drew some. Other’s came because they believed the missionaries had a special link to the spirit world. Still others were attracted by the music and ceremony of the Catholic Church Services.” Missions disrupted the Native way of life, built near villages without consent giving missionaries access to cheap labor to create an economy based on European style agriculture.[9]. Although there were exceptions, most of the missions were unbelievably harsh and often abusive. Men, women and children were forced to labor long hours and many endured torture such as laboring in chains, starvation, dog attacks, flogging and rape. Disease was abundant in the crowded quarters and adequate food was denied them.

In California, historical bias is also demonstrated in social science and history curriculum by the invisibility of AIAN experience after the mission era. This omission keeps AIAN people “stuck in time”, validating old stereotypes of inferiority and extinction.

Inaccurate portrayals of Native American people contribute to low self-esteem and educational achievement disparities among AIAN youth because their history and experiences are not respected in the classroom.[10] Historical bias is one of the reasons that many AIAN students get caught in a cycle of educational failure because they are taught that AIAN people were historically impediments to civilization.[11] Historical bias can also lead to degrading tokenization in the classroom; AIAN students may be asked to self-identify during discussion of history involving AIAN people. Subsequently, students who self-identify may be put down for “not being a real Indian,” may be expected to know information about all AIAN people under the assumption of a homogeneous Indian culture and history, or may be asked to “perform” or otherwise demonstrate their culture.

In California, although AIAN people only make-up 1.9% of the population, California has the largest AIAN population compared to all other states, totaling 723,225. In the 2011-12 school year, AIAN enrollment in K-12 public schools was about 0.7% of the overall student body. AIAN students face significant educational achievement gaps. For example, in California, AIAN high school drop out rates are 144% higher than those of the general population.[12] Educational achievement gaps not only present a social justice problem, but also pose a threat to AIAN tribes’ abilities to exercise their sovereign rights to self-determination.

By entirely eliminating a history of disenfranchisement, cultural genocide, and assimilation, the status quo limits all students’ ability to connect history with current racial stereotypes and prejudices.[13] Educational communities perform best when students can honor the experiences and contributions of their members, so when a historically biased curriculum is taught, students miss the opportunity to develop common understandings and respect. Furthermore, historical bias can alienate AIAN students, leading to psychological withdrawal from their education and cultural dislocation, thereby lowering their ability to perform to their best capacity and negatively affecting overall AIAN educational attainment.[14]

One argument against addressing historical bias is that it may not be appropriate to talk to fourth graders about such harsh events, but it is important to note that there are many other lessons to be learned from AIAN history, culture, and governance that can be applied to performance and content standards, allowing for inclusion of accurate information (i.e. rather than building mission diagrams students could learn about tribal economies and indigenous trade routes). Additionally, we must not restrict ourselves to the idea that each topic must be taught at the grade level it is currently prescribed.

Teachers need the resources to recognize and balance historical bias because solely addressing the socioeconomic status of AIAN students in classrooms does not adequately provide the cultural responsiveness required for AIAN students to excel.[15] Multicultural Education Theory recognizes that the dominant groups create the social narratives taught in school, and argues that teachers should develop a critical lens to teach material.[16] It contends that students should learn about the diversity of the world in order to participate in a democratic society. If future citizens are not taught to understand each other, ignorance and misapprehension will negatively affect their economic, political and social relationships.[17] Multicultural education and critical reflection helps teachers realize that there are more appropriate ways to include AIAN experiences in their lessons outside of building mission diagrams or dressing as pilgrims and Indians for Thanksgiving as “cultural inclusion,” when in fact these activities can be degrading to AIAN students.

With the policies and practices currently in place, California chooses to leave independent, non-authoritative organizations in charge of addressing historical bias and this strategy is not effective enough. Although California school materials have improved over the years, many continue to promote historically biased perspectives and teachers are unprepared to balance these biases because this training is not provided in their education. Currently, California does not have any specific state laws that ensure that AIAN history, culture and governance is accurately represented in K-12 curriculum.

This does not mean that all school districts or teachers uniformly teach without consulting the local tribal entity, an academic institution with supplemental resources, an organization such as the California Indian Museum and Cultural Center, or a Title VII program. In fact, some teachers go out of their way to locate resources from these organizations in order to balance their lessons about United States history, but educators often do not know whom to contact for more information, resources, and support. Additionally, teachers are often pressed for time and resources and sometimes reject the assistance of these programs because of these reasons. Organizations that can provide appropriate resources are too few and limited in scope.

The development of the American Indian Education Oversight Committee in 2006, the subsequent Advisory Committee on California Indian Education, and Governor Brown’s commitment to respecting tribal sovereignty via executive order and other actions are positive signs for AIAN educational representation, but without significant policy change, resolving historical bias at the classroom level will only occur at a slow, ineffective pace.

Fiduciary Trust Responsibility to AIAN

American Indian and Alaskan Native tribes retain sovereignty, or government-to-government status with the U.S. government. The U.S. government also has a fiduciary trust responsibility with tribes. This unique relationship is critical to this analysis because it provides the rationale to change education practices.

The federal government’s fiduciary trust obligation to AIAN tribes has developed over legal history, and is based on the fact that most of the land was taken from tribes through treaties that were signed often under coercion and sometimes through fraud, and virtually all of these treaties were violated by the U.S., state, or local government.[18] Although AIAN people qualify as an ethnic/racial group the United States government has a duty to work with tribes as sovereign nations and provide services that are responsive to their needs. Specifically, an education for AIAN children should be provided that does not inhibit the perpetuation of their histories, cultural practices, and self-governance.

The Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act of 1975 is a furtherance of both the trust responsibility and government-to-government relationship. The purpose of this Act was to improve AIAN self-determination, that is, to help tribes self-govern and gain more control over the services they receive to ensure that the administration of those services are culturally competent and promote self-determination. This Act gives tribes the ability to influence how their children are educated; it follows that if their children are in public schools they should be able to influence education.

Despite the federal government’s ongoing official trust obligation and government-to-government relationship with AIAN tribes, the AIAN population continues to have problems with poverty, low socioeconomic indicators, and low education achievement.[19]

An Overview of States’ Practices

A few states have implemented policies that result in teachings of more accurate and balanced depictions of American Indian history, culture, and governance. Montana has the premier state policy model for comprehensive reform to include accurate American Indian education in public schools. Montana’s commitment to accurate representation began with a constitutional amendment, leading to the Indian Education for All Act in 1999, which prioritizes accurate and balanced representation of American Indian history, culture, and governance and the educational experience of AIAN students. This comprehensive approach provides the resources, support, and budget allocations for public school teachers to teach accurate and balanced depictions of American Indian history, culture, and governance.

Washington works with tribes to create voluntary sovereignty-focused curriculum. In 2005, House Bill 1495 established the Office of Native Education (ONE), which develops, promotes, and evaluates curricula about tribal sovereignty and the history of federal policy towards federally-recognized tribes. ONE also helps districts collaborate with local tribes to incorporate history, culture and government into the curricula. ONE’s online curriculum for grades 4 through 12, “Since Time Immemorial” (STI), provides three levels of material for teachers to choose from, based on curricular needs and teaching time constraints (see Figure 1). The STI materials are available online so that they are easily accessible and low cost and can be regularly modified, updated and refined.

Figure2:  Washington State Curriculum

Figure 2: Source – Washington State Curriculum (click to enlarge)

 The state of New Mexico uses Memoranda of Understanding and Memoranda of Agreement between tribes, school districts, and relevant education departments to improve culturally-relevant education. In 2003, New Mexico passed the Indian Education Act (IEA); an act to ensure equitable and culturally-relevant learning environments for American Indian students in New Mexico public schools. IEA seeks to enhance the means for a formal government-to-government relationship between the Public Education Department (PED) and American Indian tribes, and to foster relationships between the Bureau of Indian Affairs and other entities that serve American Indian students, such as Urban Indian organizations. Lastly, Minnesota has a competitive grant system to improve cultural relevancy and increase the number of AIAN teachers to promote positive self-image and reinforcement for American Indian students.

While each of these models improve AIAN representation in their respective states, these models are not necessarily transferable to California. Because California has a significantly larger and more diverse population, political and financial feasibility would challenge implementation of Montana’s model of comprehensive reform,. Washington’s voluntary curriculum model would result in inequitable implementation because tribal-state relations are significantly different in California. California’s number of tribes, and the variation of tribal resources would mitigate the effectiveness and equity of New Mexico’s model of enhancing government-to-government relations. Lastly, the scope of the Minnesota’s competitive grant system is too limited to make a large enough impact.

Because each of the individual state policies would not work in California, I recommend a hybrid of Montana and Washington’s models. California should scale down Montana’s comprehensive reform and use Washington’s curriculum model to allow for flexibility and the potential for truly accurate AIAN education. Specifically, the state should establish legislation expressing California’s intention to improve representation of AIAN history, culture and governance. This legislation should include:

  • Creation and provision of funding for an office to plan, facilitate, coordinate and evaluate relevant curricular resources and professional development. This office will also assist tribal and school collaboration through a system under their discretion.
  • Provision of funding for curriculum development, perhaps through partnership with a University.
  • Formulation of a tribal coalition that can provide input in the curriculum development
  • Development of a database for educators that provides information on who to contact for more local information, resources and support.

Legislation directed at improving representation of AIAN history, culture and governance will finally demonstrate that state’s commitment to alleviating academic achievement gaps, tribal sovereignty, and fulfillment of the trust responsibility. This legislation will build a foundation for adequate resources, relationships, and structures.

The improved curriculum will help AIAN students feel included, and stop the cycle of internalizing inferiority. Non-native students will gain an improved sense of multicultural learning, a practical knowledge of AIAN history, culture, and governance, and respect for their fellow students. This curriculum will stop the perpetuation of stereotypes in education.

The state’s ability to facilitate collaboration between tribes and schools and the development of the database will help tribes exercise their sovereignty. The database will improve equity of implementation, because a primary barrier to collaboration is lack of relationships between educators and tribes and tribal organizations. Creating a new office will take some of the burden of implementation off of school districts and teachers because they will provide training and support. This overarching organization will improve information to all stakeholders, and create a more collaboration.

With implementation of this alternative, California AIAN students will experience an improved sense of inclusion in public school classrooms, and teachers will gain knowledge of AIAN history, culture, and governance. Over time this will improve educational achievement for AIAN people, and improve relations between AIAN tribes and non-Native people and governing bodies through increased awareness and understanding. This fundamental change can even help ameliorate AIAN people’s feelings of institutional distrust, caused by past and present educational and governmental experiences.

Sabine Talaugon earned both her B.A. in Public Policy and MPP from Mills College. Currently, she is the Policy & Communications Fellow at the California Consortium for Urban Indian Health and a Co-Creator of Sage Change Makers Consulting Firm, a collective of women policy professionals of color. Her work focuses health policy, youth development, and American Indian issues.

[1] Marquez, Bayley. “Who’s Left Out? Representations of American Indians in Social Studies Textbooks, 1959 – 2010.” Stanford University School of Education (2011).

[2] American Indian Education Handbook Committee, The American Indian: Yesterday, Today, & Tomorrow: A Handbook for Educators (California Department of Education, 1991).

[3] Fletcher, Matthew L.M., David H. Getches, Charles F. Wilkinson, Robert A. Williams. Cases and Materials on Federal Indian Law, Sixth Edition, (West, 2011).

[4] Aguirre, Adalberto and Jonathon Turner. American Ethnicity: The Dynamics and Consequences of Discrimination, (McGraw-Hill, 2010).

[5] Costo, R & Henry, J. Textbooks and the American Indian, (San Francisco: TheIndian Historian Press, 1970.)

[6] American Indian Education Handbook Committee.

[7] Freng, Scott, Adrienne Freng, and Helen Moore. “Examining American Indians Recall of Cultural Inclusion in School,” Journal of American Indian Education 46 (2007): 42-57.

[8] Supahan, Sarah. Points of View vs. Historical Bias: Recognizing Bias in Texts About Native Americans, (Klamath-Trinity Joint Unified School District’s Indian Education Program, 1999).

[9] Supahan, Sarah. A time of resistance: California Indians during the mission period, (1769-1848), (Klamath-Trinity Joint Unified School District Indian Education Program, 1997)

[10] Freng, Scott, Adrienne Freng, and Helen Moore. “Examining American Indians Recall of Cultural Inclusion in School,” Journal of American Indian Education 46 (2007): 42-57.

[11] Locke, Steven and Lorinda Lindley. “Rethinking Social Studies for a Critical Democracy in American/Alaska Native Education,” Journal of American Indian Education 46 (2007): 1-19

[12] Proudfit, Joely and Seth San Juan. “The State of American Indian and Alaskan Native     (AIAN) Education in California.” (California Indian Culture and Sovereignty Center, 2012).

[13] Locke, Steven and Lorinda Lindley. “Rethinking Social Studies for a Critical Democracy in American/Alaska Native Education,” Journal of American Indian Education 46 (2007): 1-19

[14] American Indian Education Handbook Committee.

[15] Beaulieu, D. 2006. “A survey and assessment of culturally based education programs for Native American students in the United States.” Journal of American Indian Education 45 (2006):50–61.

[16] Howard, Tyrone Caldwell. “Culturally Relevant Pedagogy: Ingredients for Critical Teacher Reflection,” Theory into Practice 42 (2003): 195-202.

[17] Carjuzaa, Jionna and Mike Jetty, Michael Munson, and Teresa Veltkamp. “Montana’s Indian Education for All: Applying Multicultural Education Theory,” Multicultural Perspectives 12, (2010): 192-198.

[18] American Indian Education Handbook Committee.

[19] Aguirre, Adalberto and Jonathon Turner. American Ethnicity: The Dynamics and Consequences of Discrimination, (McGraw-Hill, 2010).



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