Eurocentric Curricula: A Modern-Day Colonizer of Young Minds and Perspectives

This is a paper I did for HST102 at Dine College.  I probably could have written thirty pages, but I already went over the limit…

 

Kayla DeVault

Dr. King

World Civilizations 102

20 April 2016

Eurocentric Curricula: A Modern-Day Colonizer of Young Minds and Perspectives

Formal public education in the United States has its roots in the American Colonia Era. During this era, Christianity and white supremacy affected every aspect of political and social life in the United States as well as in many places in Europe or colonized by European countries. With an educational system being borne from this era, it is therefore understandable that the subsequent system be entrenched in Christian values and a Eurocentric perspective on the world and on racial equality. As eras have passed, more and more work has been done by the government and pressuring citizens to rewrite the curriculum, resulting in changes of religious content in curricula, the inclusion of a more racially diverse student body, and even topics like anthropology that explore more human histories. However, are the curricula in public schools still heavily Eurocentric? In particular, how are the histories First Americans portrayed today in these systems, if at all, and how does it reflect on how they portray themselves?

Until the Indian Citizenship of 1924, any Native American who did not relinquish his or her tribal citizenship could not be considered an American citizen. In some ways, becoming a citizen of both a tribal nation and the United States was controversial as it could be seen as undermining tribal sovereignty. Even so, this change means that it has been less than a century that Native American histories have become part of American history rather than an “us vs. them” viewpoint, i.e. a Eurocentric perspective. The question is whether or not the curriculum has shifted to reflect this societal change. Considering the heightened “Indians and Cowboys” film activities in the 1950s and 1960s, the American obsession with “us vs. them” and the Plains Indians cultures prohibited non-Indian Americans from seeing anything but the 1800s, stereotypical Indian fighting invading frontiersmen.

Even as the American Indian Movement rose alongside other Civil Rights movements in the 1970s, old-fashioned mentalities continued to affect modern Natives. The involuntary sterilization of thousands of Native women by the Indian Health Service during this era, under the guise of “helping” Native communities, demonstrates the prevalence of this outdated, “us vs. them” concept of Indians in the popular American viewpoint. Furthermore, the continued lack of coverage on such acts of genocide reinforces the disparities in including Indians in American history. Yet this is merely one example; American Indian histories extend for thousands of years over thousands of miles, and those histories are living. How well is our public school system doing to address such an enormous spread of topics and in a way that is culturally appropriate, accurate, and inclusive?

One of the first methods used for reviewing the curricula in public schools was to study the guidelines for Social Studies provided by the Bureau of Education. Various public school superintendents, from Flagstaff to Tuba City, confirmed that the Arizona Bureau of Education’s standards are the best resource for studying the curriculum of social studies from Kindergarten through 12th grade. Having also been a student in the Pennsylvania public school system, I spent some time analyzing that curriculum as well. I also took Advanced Placement United States History (APUSH), and so materials were reviewed for APUSH as another “American History Standard”. In all areas, the curriculum was reviewed for: 1) inclusion of Native histories; 2) presentation of Native peoples as historic-only, contemporary-only, or both; 3) breadth of Native cultures included; 4) emphasis on local history, including local tribes; 5) perspective on Native histories (Eurocentric or unbiased); 6) included or excluded historic events that are significant in Indian Country; and 7) Navajo history, especially the Long Walk.

Having attended several public and private schools in Pennsylvania, I am particularly interested in the changes being made to curricula as well as where there are still disparages. Indian mascots are used widely across eastern States, yet so many curricula fail to educate students on proper Native history, thereby perpetuating a vicious cycle of ignorance. One of my private schools is currently looking into a curriculum revision that includes training teachers on how to present materials in ways that are more culturally inclusive. In a conversation with my former school’s headmaster, she described the old curriculum as being “written and presented from the view of the oppressor”. In my years at that school and others, I can only recall a focus on the Removal Act, the Cherokee Trail of Tears, and a very general view of Indian Policy. Otherwise, topics included “Indians”. My younger brother was even given an “Indian name” in 5th grade, and we were both made to create paper headdresses to celebrate Thanksgiving. These activities not only inaccurately depict past and present Native peoples, but they also assume no Native child is on the receiving end of that education by the nature of how the information is presented. These lapses contribute to the Eurocentric curriculum perspective.

Today, education in Pennsylvania still lags behind in quality like much of the nation, but changes in the curriculum are evident. In fact, after reviewing resources for public education standards in Pennsylvania, I was pleased to discover some social studies curricula specifically geared to dispel “Indian” stereotypes in young students. One example of this is a 3rd grade activity that focuses on Anishinabe peoples relative to the Great Lakes region of the United States. This activity introduces students to past and present cultures of the various Anishinabe/Ojibwe people, discussing both original and contemporary locations. The culture and tradition of the Ojibwe people are studied in depth. The class is then tasked with researching the topic of migration of the peoples and reflecting on this migration’s role to culture. Another section, specified for grades 3 through 5, is “Not ‘Indians’, Many Tribes: Native American Diversity”. The point of this section is to show similar interactions between environment and culture for the Abenaki, Hopi, and Kwakiutl Nations. Students are asked to contrast and compare these wildly different groups and to demonstrate how their environment has shaped their cultures. These activities are encouraging to find in the curriculum guidelines because they demonstrate an effort to dispel stereotypes and create a better understanding of native peoples in both a past and present context.

However, not everything in Pennsylvania’s standard curriculum is up-to-date. While the examples found were great ones, they are not representative of the efforts across the board. These two examples were perhaps the only examples that could be made of this myth debunking, and the word “Navajo” only returned results for a collection of poems under a long list of books recommended under one track of high school history. Searches for the term “Long Walk” returned nothing, and so it is expected that even an intensive scouring of commonly used textbooks in the Pennsylvania curriculum will likely result in very little representation of significant southwest tribal history. Even the vocabulary used by these curricula to teach the most disgraceful parts of American history is rather biased. Textbooks are quick to describe the actions of Nazi Germany as “genocide” by means of “concentration camps”, but the reality is these Nazis replicated American designs that were used against tribal peoples – and yet we continue to use language like “walk”, “march”, “relocation”, and other milder terms.

Furthermore, there are many elements in the Pennsylvania history and social studies curricula that, as they stand, continue to present negative figures in a positive light. One prime example of this is the depiction of Andrew Jackson. As most Americans have likely been educated to believe, Andrew Jackson is generally portrayed as a war hero with many great accomplishments. His face appears on the twenty-dollar bill for this reason. Yet, as many modern Natives understand, and as activists like Deloria Vine, Jr. have loved to remind America, Andrew Jackson is far from a hero. Then how is it that, under the standards for social studies teaching for Pennsylvania on the War of 1812, Andrew Jackson is described as having a victory over the British in New Orleans which made him “a new hero” in the United States? (PDESAS). In fact, the link referenced for more information continues by stating: “Added to his fame as an Indian fighter, this brilliant action propelled him to national prominence and ultimately to election as president in 1828” (American History). How would an Indian student reading that line feel about what it was suggesting? Would it even occur to the other students and teachers who are non-Indian that this passage is an incredibly exclusive piece of “history”? The entire section also seems to fail drastically at educating students on contemporary issues, such as why today Andrew Jackson is so widely rejected as a hero in Indian Country. How could a modern, non-Indian student understand the motion to change the face of the twenty-dollar bill when any portrayals of Andrew Jackson in the public system are so positive?

The standards for education in the southwest are similarly governed by the States. In Arizona, the curriculum prioritizes Native history far more than eastern curricula tend to. Various Superintendents across northern Arizona supported this observation in phone conversations about their schools’ curricula. Just by reviewing the very general outlines Arizona sets for education in high school, topics regarding Native Americans appear in history, geography, and government strands. The first mention is in Paleo-Indian topics; an effort is made to differentiate the various kinds of tribal peoples and their specific inheritance. One section is set aside for the southwest populations, relevant as a local cultural topic. Unlike many other curricula for different states, the Arizona curriculum does require students to analyze the movements of American military and government and how these impacted the cultures and lives of the tribal peoples affected. In the government section, students are required to learn about the voting rights issues Natives faced – not just on a National level in 1924, but also following World War II in Arizona. This section also talks about the Code Talkers.

However, one observation is that the “Long Walk” is never specifically detailed in the curriculum, and neither is its famous eastern counterpart, the “Trail of Tears”. Even in descriptions of Kit Carson, his supervisor Carrelton, and Fort Sumner, many American texts shy away from capturing the true brutality, injustice, and Eurocentric mentality that dominated the era (Gordon-McCutchan). Carson, long praised for his efforts as written in White history, is in fact a criminal by modern standards. Especially among the Navajos, this holds true. Students today should be taught the same perspective, for anything short of that would be at conflict with the human rights topics they cover in other classes. Students on the Navajo Reservation or living near it – or perhaps just in the Southwest in general – should absolutely be made aware of not only this topic in history, but of the shift in perspectives regarding how we now reference it. Imagine if we still read passages on slavery in American history books written by those in support of keeping slavery in the economy. There are some perspectives that have to be updated and erased, so why is it taking so long to change Native American passages?

While it is true that local histories should be emphasized in one curriculum more than another, it is still important that the histories being taught at a national level should cover a significant part of Native histories. The curriculum set in place for APUSH is essentially a national standard for understanding United States History. The scores from the AP exams in this area are capable of earning college credits for high school students pursuing higher education degrees. The curriculum therefore should reflect an intense and holistic view of what is widely accepted as “American history”. Yet, APUSH does not define as “American History” starting at its Independence of 1776 or even in just the years leading into that event. Instead, it defines “American History” as 1491 and beyond. This inclusion of one year before Columbus landed in the Caribbean in a way implies that Native history is a part of the American story, but in reality its purpose is to establish an idea that Native populations have been conquered and how it was done. This is a troubling approach as it disseminates Columbus’ viewpoint on the peoples he and the Europeans after him used to justify their actions: Native peoples in a limited, narrow, and uncivilized context that fails to acknowledge cultural diversity and richness. Without making this distinction between how these “conquerors” viewed Native peoples and how they should be viewed, it becomes increasingly difficult to put contemporary Indian issues into a historical context. For example, just the very idea of “Indian policy” as a blanket term for how to “deal with” Indian peoples perpetuates the blurring of lines between sovereign nations and the “us vs. them” mentality that devastates understanding modern issues faced by tribal governments and citizens in the Americas.

Although the curriculum largely focuses on the “Five Civilized Tribes”, the Spanish missions and encomienda system in the southwest, and some of the political movements from the American Indian Movement in the northern Plains, I saw no indication of Hawai’ian and Alaskan indigenous histories. The Dawes Act and subsequent Indian Reorganization Act is mentioned, but no curriculum notes outline the Residential Boarding School Era, the Navajo Long Walk, the Livestock Reduction, the Navajo-Hopi Land Dispute, or even the Termination Era of Indian Policy. In fact, Native history seems to end in 1973 with Wounded Knee – although, sadly, that is much more impressive than most histories that end with the Trail of Tears and which fail to portray Natives as living citizens with professional careers.

In addition to these curricula, one business book for business classes at Coconino Community College was analyzed for material relevant to Indian businesses. The book is “The Legal, Ethical, and Regulatory Environment of Business” by Bruce D. Fisher and Michael J. Phillips (1998). The purpose of the book is to “[emphasize] the relevance of legal environment topics to business functions” and to present a “strong emphasis on ethics, international law, environmental law, and women’s legal concerns”. After scanning the book’s contents for any coverage on Indian businesses or tribal entities, it was found that Native Americans are mentioned very few times in the text.

On page 459, a section devoted to “Exclusions from Coverage” mentions employer discrimination policies. In this, it explains that Title VII does not apply to Native American tribes, but nothing more is stated to explain why this is so. For the Navajo Nation, for example, there is a complicated business arrangement. Not only is employment priority Navajo (not simply Native American), but all business transactions fall under a complicated bidding process with Navajo Priority 1, Priority 2, and Non-Priority. Indian services provided by the Federal government, on the other hand, are Indian Preference. This concept is so widely misunderstood by the non-Indian population that it should be emphasized in all business texts. In a school like Coconino Community College, surrounded by Indian Country, it is somewhat surprising that is excluded. Another mention, on page 783, casually describes the Department of Energy attempting “to convince Native American tribes to accept [nuclear] wastes on their reservations in exchange for federal money”, as if this is ethical business practice (Fisher).

All in all, it appears as though states are making an effort to be more inclusive of non-biased Native histories that assist in dispelling stereotypes. However, the transition is slow, and it is especially slow in areas where there are less Native students or Native populations – i.e. areas that may have a higher tendency to not see Natives in a modern perspective and who would, therefore, benefit from these contemporary lessons the most. So many curricula focus on the expulsion of Spanish powers from the southwest without consideration that people already lived there. That is why incorporating lessons on the Long Walk is such a key point for introducing the atrocities committed by all armies during the 1800s in present-day New Mexico and Arizona. The real story of the Long Walk is not lost among today’s Navajos, however. Modern music about the walk can be heard regularly on KTNN, the local Window Rock radio station. There is also the famous song Shí Naasha, written in 1868, that sums up the true emotions of the walk back from Fort Sumner:

Ahala ahalago naashá ghą

Shí naashá ghą, shí naashá ghą,

Shí naashá lágo hózhǫ’ la.

Shí naashá ghą, shí naashá ghą,

Shí naashá, ladee hózhǫ’ǫ’ lá.

I am going in freedom.

I am going in beauty all around me.

I am going, I am going, in beauty

It is around me.

This song reflects the anxiousness and relief of the people returning. It is also cultural significant when one realizing the story and the impact of reentering the boundaries of the four sacred mountains. Furthermore, “walking in beauty” and “harmony” play such an important part to Navajo culture, and seeing it as such a positive way to recover from Fort Sumner demonstrates the resilience and cultural strength of the Navajo people. The spirituality is completely interlocked with their experience at Fort Sumner, despite the conditions and lack of hope. Their song and prayer is what kept them together. These are things students are not able to learn from modern curricula and therefore are not able to understand wholesomely when visiting the Navajo Nation or surrounding areas.

In conclusion, the American education system still has a ways to go before it will be truly and equal and unbiased learning experience. Once students are able to recite the culture, history, capitals, and names of tribal nations as well as they can European ones, they will be closer to understanding the country they actually live in; and once students can stop using descriptors like “African”, “Asian”, “Indian”, and “French” or “Italian” as if they are parallel words, equality will be better established in the way we perceive the world. We have had numerous battles about removing religion from schools; it is time we begin making greater strides to reform the “Native American” curricula in these schools as well.

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