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Census calls for more lessons in Indigenous schools

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Many American Indians and Alaskan Indians say that the dramatic increase in their numbers recorded in last year’s census supports their long-held argument that Indigenous history should gain more attention in the public school classrooms.

Even before the last count, there was a growing movement to infuse more Indigenous material into school curricula – not only to connect students to their roots, but also to ensure that all students are aware of the contributions of Indigenous peoples and to encourage respect for sovereignty. tribal rights.

The tribes are also hoping that adding millions of people counted as Native American or Alaskan Indians in last year’s census will result in a larger share of public funds, such as the $ 4.8 billion. dollars the federal government allocated last year for relief from the tribal coronavirus pandemic. The federal government based this amount on earlier and lower estimates of the country’s Aboriginal population.

Some states, including Oklahoma, Oregon, Washington, and Wisconsin, have already taken steps to make Indigenous history and culture a bigger part of classroom learning. Today, politicians and advocates in other states are doing the same: Connecticut and North Dakota passed laws this year requiring Indigenous history classes, while California has pending legislation on the matter. .

The number of American Indian and Alaska Native censuses increased from nearly 4.5 million to 9.7 million between 2010 and 2020, an increase the US Census Bureau attributes to better questions in 2020 that helped uncover the heritage of multiracial people.

The higher numbers will help strengthen the political clout of indigenous people, said Sarah White, lead facilitator for the South Dakota Education Equity Coalition, which works with local Sioux tribes to strengthen indigenous content in school curricula. She suggested that even the highest numbers from the 2020 census reflect an undercoverage of Native Americans and Alaska Natives, given counting challenges during the pandemic.

“Regardless of our population, morally and ethically speaking, we are the original inhabitants of this land which is now considered South Dakota, and that should be enough for our inclusion,” White said.

However, the pressure for schools to place more emphasis on Indigenous history and culture has met with political headwinds in South Dakota. Members of a task force tasked with developing new social studies standards say the administration of Republican Governor Kristi Noem has removed many references to Native Americans, including historical traditions and lessons on the meanings of symbols such as star quilts, buffalo and medicine wheels.

Montana is often cited as a pioneer in ensuring that public school students learn Indigenous history and culture. In 1972, he enshrined this principle in his state constitution, which now declares that Montana “recognizes the distinct and unique cultural heritage of American Indians and is committed in its educational goals to preserving their cultural integrity.”

In July, however, the Montana ACLU and the Native American Rights Fund filed a complaint claiming that the state had failed to meet its legal obligations and that “Montanians, Indians and non-Indians were not learning about Native American heritage. ‘in a culturally appropriate way’.

Many state legislatures have debated what students should learn about the nation’s tortured racial history. A Texas law enacted in June required education about Native Americans in public schools, but another law enacted after a special session in September removed that requirement. Both measures were included in laws aimed at Critical Race Theory, a decades-old scholarly vein that seeks to examine how government policies, laws and court rulings can perpetuate racism. Although they struggled to cite evidence that K-12 schools teach critical race theory, Republican lawmakers in many states have used it as a catch-all term in their efforts to curb discussions of race. race and racism in schools.

For many, the dramatic increase in the number of people identifying themselves as Native American or Alaska Native in the census count is a sign that more and more people want to know more about their Native origins and how. be proud of it, said Aaron Payment, president of Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians, based in Michigan.

“There has been so much pressure to assimilate that a lot of people have genericized their identities,” said Payment, who also worked on a national committee to implement the Indigenous education provisions. of the federal law of 2015, Every Child Succeeds Act, which gave more to state and local governments. control of teaching priorities.

“In Michigan, we are fortunate to have strong school and tribal ties so children can learn about local Woodland tribes instead of some Southwestern tribes in a standard national curriculum,” Payment said. “We need this information to give our children more confidence and self-esteem. “

In Oklahoma, in recent years, schools have shown “a whole new level of respect and commitment” for the 39 tribes in the state, by holding monthly meetings between school districts and tribal leaders on the education, said Joy Hofmeister, state superintendent of public education.

Oklahoma students learn about the Trail of Tears, the forced march of the Cherokee, Creek, Choctaw, Chickasaw and Seminole tribes from their ancestral lands to present-day Oklahoma Indian Territory.

More recently, Oklahoma schools are now offering tribal languages ​​as an option for graduation requirements and are getting more information about tribal affiliation from the state’s approximately 150,000 Indigenous students, number the most. highest in the country, said Hofmeister.

“It’s so important for the preservation of these languages,” said Hofmeister, a longtime Republican who announced his intention to run for governor as a Democrat.

Nine tribes in Oregon lobbied for more public school materials on Indigenous history, resulting in a 2017 state law mandating classes on, for example, Indigenous perspectives on Lewis and Clark’s explorations mapping the lands west of the Mississippi River in the early 1800s.

Such lessons had to be scaled back but did not stop during the virtual learning phase of the pandemic, said Oregon State Education Coordinator Brent Dale Spencer.

“With limited screen time, districts were forced to focus on core content areas,” Spencer said, adding that the state would soon be investigating schools on how to continue tribal classes.

Wisconsin Democratic Governor Tony Evers is a former public school superintendent who has advocated for Indigenous history in schools and recently apologized for the state’s role in Native American boarding schools. Many such schools are under investigation nationwide as more and more reports point to historical student abuse in the name of assimilation.

A 2019 review of states’ Indigenous education efforts by the National Congress of American Indian, an association of tribal governments, found that most states are working to include more material on Indigenous peoples. in the Kindergarten to Grade 12 curriculum, but many stop ahead of requiring it in local school districts. As a result, schools still tolerate ignorance of the rights of tribal nations and allow “invisibility, stereotypes and misinformation” about tribes, according to the report.

For the first time, the 2020 census questionnaire contained suggested written responses to the category of American Indians, including Mayans and Aztecs, origins shared by many immigrants from Mexico and Central America, as well. as tribes based in the United States such as the Navajo Nation and the Blackfeet. Tribe. As a result, “a greater proportion of the Hispanic population is not reporting that they are racially white,” said Roberto Ramirez, chief of the ethnicity and ancestry statistics branch of the US Census Bureau.

Pedro Mateo Pedro, a linguistics expert at the University of Maryland and a native speaker of Q’anjob’al, a Mayan language in Guatemala, agreed that the census change has encouraged many Hispanics to report indigenous roots.

“Usually the questions about being an indigenous person are general and vague,” he said. The specific mention of the Mayans and Aztecs makes it clearer that the term Native Americans “applies to all indigenous nations in the continents of North and South America, not just the United States or Canada.”

Hispanics citing their Indigenous roots accounted for 1.8 million of the increase, most of the remainder, about 2.2 million, from people reporting mixed white and Indigenous heritage.

“Many people of mixed origins are unaware of their specific identity,” said Payment, who has a white father and an indigenous mother. “I was fortunate that my mother’s family, especially my grandmother, made sure I got to know myself.

“I applaud the diversity,” said Payment. “As a people, we are happier when we recognize our cultural and tribal roots. We are all descended from Aboriginal people, even though they are Aboriginal people from Europe.


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