“Whoever controls the education of our children controls the future.”
So said the late Cherokee Chief Wilma Mankiller in 1993. When it comes to the education of this country’s nearly 500,000 Indigenous K-12 students, there is a growing realization that the future is tied to the past. And it’s missing from what most Native students learn in school. That gap in curricula helps explain why student accountability data puts Native students in last place in standardized test scores, high school graduation rates and percent who go to college.
If none of this is a surprise, it’s because this picture of Native American students is familiar. But in this case, the data doesn’t tell the right story.
“It’s very important that people just don’t take those stats at face value,” said Brian Bull (Nez Perce), a reporter and news manager at KLCC, the NPR station in Eugene, Oregon.
“An education reporter has to remember this is also a portrayal of resilience,” Bull said. “You’re looking at a bunch of tough cookies who take pride and ownership on who they are and are simply trying to rebuild.”
Including Bull, Native reporters and educators gave background and advice to help education reporters around the country do deeper, more authentic reporting on Indian Country.
Why Reporters Should Address the “Invisibility” of Native People
Recent years have seen massive efforts to address the flawed but dominant narrative about Native Americans.
Reclaiming Native Truth, a national project to dispel myths and misconceptions about Indigenous people, started researching the extent of the problem in 2016.
Conducting interviews, focus groups, national surveys and more, the organization found:
- Nearly half of Americans say what they learned in school was inaccurate.
- Exactly 72% believe it’s necessary to make significant changes to school curricula on Native American history and cultures.
- Many were unaware Native Americans still exist.
- Native students often learn their history and cultures at home, not in school.
The organization’s researchers wrote, “We have learned how biases keep contemporary Native Americans invisible and/or affixed to the past and are holding back Native Americans from achieving political, economic and social equality.”
It concluded that invisibility may be Indian Country’s biggest problem.
“When my kids were growing up [in Ohio], the only time Indians came up was spirit week for the Cleveland Indians baseball team,” Bull said.
They heard about Chief Wahoo, the team’s mascot from 1951 to 2018, but nothing about the tribes that used to inhabit the state, such as the Seneca and Ottawa, Bull added.
Debra Utacia Krol, (Xolon Salinan Tribe), reports on Indigenous issues for The Arizona Republic in Phoenix. The 66-year-old has worked as a journalist for more than 20 years.
She recommended reporters make an effort to get to know the tribes in their communities, such as their land, history and cultures.
“I always tell reporters, ‘Don’t call it culture. Call it cultures with an ‘s’ because our cultures vary greatly’,” Krol said. “You really need to put your assumptions aside.”
Make sure you know whose tribal land you’re living on and be willing to acknowledge that, she added. (Note: Here’s a great start, Native-Land.ca)
Native History Curricula vs. Critical Race Theory Accusations
Bull and his family now live in Oregon, where tribes are leading an effort to put Native history and their cultures in the K-12 curriculum.
As awareness grows, proponents of reform say they run into opposition from critics of critical race theory, a graduate-level, academic research framework.
Bull and others say what critics label CRT is really an attempt to teach about history and conflict in a way that explains present-day discrimination.
“People who benefit politically from trying to create and maintain this division,” he said. “That’s telling in itself.”
While many education reporters dig into the political and academic implications of the arguments over CRT, some Native educators aren’t buying any of it.
“Native Americans cannot be classified as a race,” said Ramona Kitto Stately (Santee Sioux), a long-time teacher in Minnesota. Kitto Stately is now project director of We Are Still Here Minnesota, a nonprofit with a mission to challenge the prevailing narratives that hurt Native people.
“Sovereignty is the first thing educators and education reporters need to understand,” she said.
There are 574 federally recognized Native tribes in 34 states, or as Kitto Stately might put it, there are 34 states that occupy what used to be tribal lands. Each of them has a particular culture and history, but acknowledging and respecting their sovereignty would be a good start, Kitto Stately said.
But “there are two sovereigns in the United States. There’s the United States of America, and then there’s tribal nations,” she said.
Kitto Stately led the Indian Education department for Minnesota’s fifth-largest school district, Osseo School District, from 2005 to 2020.
The changes she implemented – from placing flags of tribal nations next to Minnesota’s flag in district schools to offering culture-based instruction – resulted in improved achievement and graduation rates for Native students, especially compared to other districts in Minnesota, she said.
Indigenous Education Movement: What to Know
Tribes in many states are leading efforts to implement Indigenous education for all.
“What happened is that culture, language and way of life was forcefully placed on us,” said Donnie Wetzel (Blackfeet), tribal liaison and director of tribal relations and resiliency for the Montana Office of Public Instruction.
Montana was the first state to mandate Indigenous education for public school students. Among other things, the state constitution requires “… every Montanan, whether Indian or non-Indian, be encouraged to learn about the distinct and unique heritage of American Indians in a culturally responsive manner.” In 2021, tribes and parents sued the state, alleging education leaders weren’t fulfilling these educational requirements.
Wetzel encourages Native students to “love who and what they are as Indigenous people” by bringing in elders and stories, and strengthening interaction between the state education department and Montana’s 12 tribal nations.
In Oregon, Bull has reported on the “new imperative” to improve high school graduation rates for Native students, including the progress of legislation that would implement K-12 curriculum about Oregon’s tribes for all students. And Oregon has joined the nationwide movement to make college more affordable for them.
“Any education story that’s worth its weight needs to also look at what’s being done to address challenges, as well as just the challenges themselves,” Bull said.
- Don’t rely on past reporting because sometimes the past reporting is wrong. “It’s easy to make a mistake. Once you make that one mistake, you may never get the trust back,” Krol said.
- Ask Indigenous Journalists Association for help. IJA has a robust website that includes reporting guidelines and ideas for stories.
Newsroom leaders can post job openings and ask for in-person guidance on covering Indian Country. A great start is IJA’s Bingo card, a tool to help avoid stereotypes of Native people.
- Read other resources for journalists. Krol recommended reading “Decolonizing Journalism,” an upcoming book by First Nations journalist Duncan McCue. The guide advises reporters on covering Indigenous communities.
- Connect with the state education department. Many have a liaison or staff members who work directly with tribes or schools on Native land.
- Get to know school districts with large Native populations. Be present. Show up. Cover items beyond Indigenous People’s Day or National Native American Heritage Month.
“Our families may have problems, but at least they’re families,” Wetzel said. “Tribes are one big extended family, and elders are our doctoral-level knowledge-keepers. You can’t make it simple without going deep. You have to go there. You have to sit with people. You have to become a part of it … Once you’re in and there’s trust there, there’s nothing like it in the world.”
- Look into the Bureau of Indian Education. It’s an overlooked bureaucracy that administers hundreds of schools, compiles data and can offer interviews and insights.
- Learn Native American history. No matter where you stand, you are on Native land. Learn about the original caretakers. Try to put aside stereotypes and misconceptions you may have and work to dismantle them. Stay away from poverty porn and noble savage ideas. Learn what happened to Native nations, from the Trail of Tears through the Indian Reorganization Act and the boarding school era. Consult tribal websites where you work, or start with one of the many online reading lists.
- Approach tribes and tribal governments with respect and humility. Realize that tribes are sovereign. Ask permission. Understand you’re taking something substantial when you take a story. Be grateful.
Krol recommended this language when reaching out to a tribal government: “‘I’m the new reporter in your area. Sometimes, I might have to jump in at the last minute, but what advice can you give me as a new journalist in your area to learn more about you?’”
“Once you start making those outreaches, tribes generally have somebody whose job it is to do some public outreach,” she added. “Find that person; make friends with them. Make sure that you have established some sort of relationship with them. Do it in advance.”
- Avoid what is known as the four Ds: Drumming, dancing, dead or drunk. “If your story has way too much drumming, dancing, drunk and dead Indians and too much of the warrior trope, you might want to rethink about recasting that story. Unless of course, it’s the World Hoop Dance Championship, in which case, drumming and dancing is entirely appropriate,” Krol said.
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