Institutional Racism in School: The Native American Experience

Institutional racism has been an issue in schools since they first admitted non-white students in classrooms. The focus of this blog is specifically related to Native American students. As a Native American I have experienced racism, overt and covert. My children had the same experience, and I know Native students across the US have also experienced it or will experience it.

When a student first goes to school, they have already been prepared by their family about what to expect and how to get through it. I prepared my kids the same way that I was. I told them of their ancestors and the relatives that survived the horrors of Indian Boarding School, and the ones who were not so lucky. I told them that their ancestors would be watching over them, and that we all love them. “Don’t let school break you.” They have already heard the scary or ugly stories about school from their older siblings and cousins. They have heard adults comforting other children with advice on how to get through school. School is something to endure.

In kindergarten, there are the construction paper head-dresses and the little thanksgiving figures made from toilet paper tubes and construction paper and glue. Children’s faces burn with embarrassment when they hear their white peers pretending to be “Indians”. As the child survives one year to the next, they hear about the brave colonists, fighting off savage Indian attacks and taming the country to make it what it is today. The Declaration of Independence mentions Natives as being savages. Textbooks do not tell the whole story. Often what is taught in school is far different from the history of our tribes.

Sometimes teachers make homage to the Natives by having circle time or pass the talking stick. We cringe when there are oversimplifications or classroom “tribes” that seem to mock our culture. In history class we hear about the brave soldiers that fought the Indians in battles. We do not consider these men heroes. In our collective history, they were remembered as monsters that wiped out entire villages. The famed “Indian killers” have statues and buildings named after them.

Some Natives are unlucky enough to attend a school that has an “Indian” mascot of some kind. Thank goodness the Pro-Football team retired the “Redskins” name and are the Commanders now. Redskin made most of the Natives that I know think back to the time that there was money paid for each “red skin” turned in. They made tags and permits, as if we were deer. This is all history we grew up knowing, but it was not taught in school. What do the history textbooks teach to children today? A few years back, my son went to an online public school. His 3rd grade class was told that the Cherokee relocated to make room for the white settlers. Their relocation was never called the “Trail of Tears” in that class.

Kids that feel uncomfortable in the school, do not have the right mind-set to maximize their learning potential. When they experience shame or embarrassment for being who they were born as, they are often confused, upset, anxious, depressed, or angry. School becomes the enemy. A place where you must do your time.

I read a study that examined 8th grade History Books in Montana. They were looking to see if microaggressions still existed in textbooks being used in 2020. Montana is the only state (as far as I know) that requires students to be taught the history and heritage of the Native People indigenous to their state. Through their study, the researchers discovered that the history textbooks included microaggressions, microinvalidations, microinsults, and micro assaults. They stated that since they were all white researchers and they only had one Native American assistant, they used two Native American Graduate Students as consultants. They feel that there may have been more issues in the textbooks, but they were not familiar enough with Native American culture to know whether there was more that could be perceived in a negative light. An example would be that they discovered a passage that they felt might be a microaggression but were unsure, so they took it to the Native Consultants, who informed them that the passage was a micro insult and a micro assault.

I was not surprised by this study. I agree with it, and I agree with their recommendations. They recommend that schools reach out to the Native Community and ask them to provide consultation regarding textbooks, tribal representation, and corrections or additional information that the Native Community wants to have shared in the schools, to foster understanding and equity between white and Native students.

History textbooks are not the only place where misunderstandings can arise. One of those areas are Native Folklore and Creation stories. Some non-Native people have worked with or studied tribes and learned these stories. They have put the stories in books, but some of our stories are sacred and must only be told at certain times of the year, or under certain conditions. It feels like a violation when the stories are read at the wrong time.

Changing the institutional racism that occurs in schools is going to take a lot of time and effort. Part of the problem is that the texts (especially history books) are written from a white-privilege point of view. The textbooks will never be 100%fair to all people, but the first step would be to open lines of communication and get Indigenous voices into the conversation. The same is true for any other minority, bring in consultants from their population. If you don’t know the answers, ask questions.

In the state of Montana, Native youth are 5 times more likely to complete suicide than their white counterparts. Bleak outlook, high drop-out rates, and other issues related to institutional racism and inherited trauma contribute to this trend. If we begin with schools, eliminating the racism and creating an equitable learning environment the kids should have an easier time and have less issues with anxiety and depression.

With less anxiety and depression, students will be better able to pay attention to the curriculum and will be more comfortable in the learning environment. I feel that this will lead to more positive outcomes and a better relationship with the whole school system. Involving the Native Community in the local schools will create a tie between school and community. This will help us all move forward and begin the healing process. School will no longer be a scary place that needs to be endured, it has the potential to become a place where students can enjoy learning.

Holter, O. G., Goforth, A. N., Pyke, K., & Shindorf, Z. R. (2020). Cultivating perspective: A qualitative inquiry examining school history textbooks for microaggressions against native americans. Journal of Educational and Psychological Consultation, 30(3), 255–284. https://doi.org/10.1080/10474412.2019.1705162

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