Native American students hope new education law will help reverse years of misinformation

By Joe Hong, CalMatters

Raven Casas, 16, remembers an English homework assignment where her teacher sent students a link to a website called “Native American Artifacts.” Students had to choose an artifact and write about its symbolism. But when Casas clicked on the link, she found images of merchandise touting the Kansas City Chiefs professional football team.

“They were just things with Native American symbols on them, and they called them Native American artifacts,” she said. “I just explained to him how it was wrong and how this mission was offensive.”

That’s why Native American students like Casas and tribal leaders are cheering for a new law signed by Governor Gavin Newsom last week. It establishes the California Indian Education Act, which encourages school districts to work with local Native American tribes to develop history lessons and strategies to close the achievement gap for Native students. Local districts would then submit the work of their task forces to the state, helping California become an authority in serving Native American students.

Tribal leaders believe that better Native history education will not only enrich all students, but will also lead to better high school graduation rates and healthier lives for young Native Americans.

“Educating our people kind of takes us out of the shadows,” Casas said. “It shines a 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 his peers say that despite their own ancestral roots in the area, public schools have failed to educate students about their tribe’s history.

Casas said that instead of completing the artifact mission, she sent a message to her teacher to educate her about her culture. She said she received no grades or feedback for the assignment. In fact, Casas said, the teacher never acknowledged her grade. She said this new law could help weed out other misinformed missions.

“I would like to shift the perspective of the program to the Native American point of view,” Casas said.

The San Manuel Band of Mission Indians Community Center on the San Manuel Reservation in San Bernardino on September 27, 2022.Pablo Unzueta/CalMatters

Johnny Hernandez, the vice president of the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians who advocated for the new law, stressed the importance of local history.

“It’s important because as California nations, each tribal community has unique cultural identities,” Hernandez said. “It’s important for people to get to know the indigenous tribes in their areas.”

The new law was drafted as a bill by California Assemblyman James Ramos de Rancho Cucamonga, the only Native American member of the state legislature. This law would require task forces to submit annual reports to the California Department of Education, which would then report to the Senate and Assembly Education Committees. Lawmakers would use these reports to inform future policies.

The bill was supported unanimously in the Senate and the State Assembly. Teachers’ unions, the California Charter Schools Association and state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond all backed the legislation.

“We have to start at the local level,” Ramos said. “The goal is for that local knowledge to feed into the state and you can have an all-culture clearinghouse in California”

Ramos, also a member of the San Manuel tribe, said the bill was long overdue. He remembers one of his own teachers asking him and his fellow tribesmen to perform 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 don’t have to be Native Americans,” Ramos said.

Last year, when a Teacher at Riverside High School wearing a faux feather headdress and imitating a Native American chant to illustrate a mathematical concept, insensitivity sounded familiar to Ramos. But today there is 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 hope people are interested in doing the right thing,” he said. “Time will tell, but the indigenous peoples 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 program last year that taught students about tribal history, culture and land use.

The hands-on program used real tribal artifacts to teach students about local customs. The program has been recognized by the Harvard University Project on American Indian Economic Development.

Hernandez said cultural ignorance can fuel caricatures like the Riverisde incident, while a thoughtful curriculum can help Native American students form “a complete view of who they are as a tribal person.” Hernandez hopes a stronger sense of identity will also translate to higher high school graduation rates.

In 2021, Native American students had a 73% graduation rate, lower than any other racial or ethnic group except black students. Less than a third of graduating Native American students have completed the courses required 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 of 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-balanced way.”

A richer history curriculum leads to fewer misunderstandings. Fewer misunderstandings gives Native American students a sense of belonging on campus, Hernandez said.

“When people think of San Manuel, they only think of 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 landlords of casinos.

“I feel like it happens every week or every month,” Gauge said. “As a Native American, they think I’m just a slot machine.”

But both Gauge and Casas want young Californians to know how their people got to where they are today: the genocide and displacement that preceded the current success of some Native Americans.

“In the program, it’s important to maintain our culture and our identity,” Gauge said. “We have to see it in a better way.”

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