Why We Should All Be Thankful for the Rise of Native American Studies Programs

In October 2015, the U.S. Department of Education, in coordination with the White House Initiative on American Indian and Alaska Native Education, released its findings on the status of Native American education.

These resulted from a campaign geared toward understanding the perspectives of Native youth, parents, teachers, community members, and their advocates in “School Environment Listening Sessions.” The sessions were documented in a report that presented Native people’s stories, concerns, and experiences in order to encourage positive changes to classroom and school environments. The sessions were held in seven states, including New York, California, and Alaska.

Results of the Listening Sessions

Native American students reported unhealthy, unaccepting, and hurtful educational environments at the K–12 and higher education levels, including being ignored, dismissed, or met with hostility when reporting harmful situations or requesting recourse for such damaging practices as the use of Native mascots and logos. For instance, two local experts for the Troy, New York session — Dr. Michael Taylor (Seneca Nation), a visiting professor at Ithaca College and Dr. Richard Rose (Cherokee), an adjunct professor at Schenectady Community College — pointed out that negative depictions of Native Americans “can make students feel stressed, anxious, confused, or embarrassed.”

Drs. Taylor and Rose explained how the commodification and misrepresentation of American Indians (AI) and Native Alaskans (NA) fails to acknowledge the diversity of indigenous cultures. While corporations make a profit from inaccurate and insensitive logos, Native youth wrestle to formulate their identities in the midst of a mainstream culture that collapses the distinctions between tribal peoples.

While there are some who feel that school mascots do not need to be changed — a fact that the report acknowledges — it is not included in the report, since this point of view was not expressed during the listening sessions.

In addition to discussing the damaging effect Native imagery and symbolism may have on Native youth, the report also presented information concerning bullying, student discipline, and the need to improve overall school climate.

Next Steps: Supporting Indigenous Students

One outcome of the sessions is a set of recommendations for states and local school districts. These include the following best practices:

Support Native American languages. As a foundation to providing a better environment for Native students, where appropriate, states and school districts should support the preservation and revitalization of Native languages. One way this could be done is through in-school and out-of-school programs and credit-bearing coursework.

Promote positive school discipline. Promote school discipline policies that encourage effective and culturally responsive strategies for avoiding inequitable application of suspensions and expulsions. Examples include peer-to-peer mediation and restorative justice.

Address teacher and school staff attitudes and behavior. Encourage educators and school staffs nationwide to complete cultural competence training to better understand the cultural, social, linguistic, and historical context AI/AN students bring with them to school.

Address negative student attitudes and bullying. Encourage schools to implement policies that discourage bullying. Promptly and effectively remedy the bullying when it happens, and provide more support to victims. Train school staffs on recognizing and addressing bullying. Additionally, encourage schools to offer programs that promote inclusion, and educate students and families about reporting bullying.

Promote cultural awareness. Promote the accurate instruction of Native American history and culture to all school staffs and create initiatives for parents and tribal leaders to engage with students. States and districts should analyze resources, strategies, and professional development opportunities to ensure that tribal histories are included accurately.

Analyze mascots and imagery. States and local school districts should consider the historical significance and context of Native school mascots and imagery in determining whether they have a negative effect on students, including Native American students. States and districts should also work with schools to develop and implement actions to change potentially harmful imagery and symbolism present in their student environments.

Address access and equity challenges. States and local districts should promote better understanding among schools about the access and equity challenges that AI/AN students may face, such as inadequate facilities and transportation, and encourage the development of culturally responsive, flexible school policies and resources necessary to support students.

Appropriately identify students with disabilities. Promote training for educators on effectively distinguishing AI/AN cultural and language differences from disabilities.

The Rise of Native American Studies

Even though these recommendations have not yet been widely implemented, there is an antidote to the issues Native students face at the K–12 level, and that is the increasing number of American Indian Studies and Native American Studies programs.

The updated Guide to Native American Studies Programs in the United States and Canada lists more than 135 such programs that offer either majors or minors (or both) for any student interested in learning about the “realities of the American Indian and Indigenous world,” as Robert Warrior (Osage), director of the American Indian Studies Program at the University of Illinois, characterized these courses of study.

The Native American Studies Program at the University of Michigan, for instance, “places American Indians at the center of broader inquiries into the nature of the human confrontation with intrusive power.” And at the University of Nebraska, Native American Studies offers students a variety of perspectives concerning the greater North American experience, in part by focusing on the intercultural communication between European-American and Native American cultures.

The existence of these programs — of which these are just a few examples — and the fact that both Native and non-Native students register as majors and minors, combined with this new Department of Education White House Initiative, both suggest a positive shift in how the American educational system will respond to American Indian and Alaskan Native students in learning settings. These moves promise to help create respectful learning environments and to increase awareness about American Indian and Alaska Native peoples, cultures, and histories.

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