Hope for the Future in American Indian Education

Jacque Nunez and Dina at the opening of the Earth Lodge in San Clemente, 2013.

Jacque Nunez and Dina at the opening of the Earth Lodge in San Clemente, 2013.

This week I had an unusual experience that I’d like to share. I work as a volunteer docent in a Native American museum program that is on the campus of a local elementary school in the community where I live, called Lobo Lodge. There is a sister exhibit called the Earth Lodge where we teach Native American approaches to environmental studies at the K-12 grade levels. Both exhibits are the only of their kind that we know of anywhere in the country, and are part of the federally funded Indian education program at Capistrano Unified School District (although the exhibits are entirely privately funded). Kogee Thomas is the director, and Acjachemen storyteller and cultural teacher Jacque Nunez contributes her valuable knowledge. We give tours, do teacher training, and have family activity nights. We are considered an important resource in the region for teaching Native history and culture, as well as being a gathering place for Native community members.

This week Kogee, Jacque, and I were asked by a group of elementary school teachers and their principal to meet with them to discuss a dilemma they were having at their school. The school has traditionally had a day they call “Colonial Day” where they teach about the colonial period of American history. The kids enact colonial dances, eat food from the era, do crafts, and dress in period costumes. It seems they had an irate parent who expressed his opposition to his Native American children participating in reenacting what he felt was a shameful, oppressive history. The teachers encouraged his children to dress in “Native American costume” to “honor” and highlight their heritage. But the parent was enraged  and uncompromising, even threatening to sue the district.

The teachers were naturally disturbed at the parents’ reaction to Colonial Day. But it got them thinking about how to teach American history in a way that not only gives a more balanced approach and incorporates Native history and perspectives, but that doesn’t perpetuate harmful stereotypes. We had a long and lively discussion, giving them ideas about how to change Colonial Day to make it more culturally sensitive while at the same time meeting educational standards for teaching American history.

Kogee, Jacque, and I expressed how unusual it was to be asked for help like this. The teachers were genuinely interested in what we had to say; they were not defensive, or arrogant in any way. They heard us express our academic perspectives and desires to have American Indian histories be more accurately represented in American education. But they also heard us tell our own painful family histories of cultural shaming as a result of government policies, and how history-telling perpetuates those wounds. The meeting was truly a remarkable moment for the 3 of us Native women, and we let the teachers know that it was an act of healing for each of us. Such conscientiousness on the part of teachers gives me a small glimmer of hope for the future of American education.

About Dina

Dina Gilio-Whitaker (Colville Confederated Tribes) is a lecturer of American Indian Studies at California State University San Marcos, and a consultant and educator in environmental justice policy planning. Dina’s research interests focuses on Indigenous nationalism, self-determination, environmental justice, and education. She also works within the field of critical sports studies, examining the intersections of indigeneity and the sport of surfing. Dina is co-author with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz of Beacon Press’s “All the Real Indians Died Off” and 20 Other Myths About Native Americans, and her forthcoming book, As Long as Grass Grows: The Indigenous Fight for Environmental Justice from Colonization to Standing Rock, is scheduled for release by Beacon Press in April 2019.
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