The Diaspora of Native Americans from History
Growing up, one of the most popular role playing games for little boys was “Cowboys versus Indians.” This was a game made famous due to the sheer volume of western films and TV shows. If you have never seen a western film, here is the general idea: the good guys are always cowboys, and the bad guys are generally Indians. So in the role playing game everyone wants to be a cowboy. Why? If you were a cowboy you were instantly the good guy, thus making those on the side of the Indians instantly the bad guys. This idea of Indians or Native Americans being instantly bad simply based on their race has fueled racism that still exists in society today, even within our children’s education.
Over the decades following World War II, the issue of racism and civil rights has been a topic of major discussion, specifically concerning awareness for African Americans, women, LGBT, and Latin Americans. Nevertheless, with the rise of these issues, one has remained relatively silent and that is the issue of Native Americans. In the midst of the rise of these new focuses, one must be careful to not ignore the natives of this land, lest a new manifest destiny of tolerance and inclusion excludes the native peoples. Manifest destiny, historically, was the belief of 19th century Americans who believed that it was their destiny to colonize from coast to coast, thus forcing Native Americans out of their homes. Therefore, with the rising tide of focusing on equal education about other groups and the ignoring of the first Americans, we will see a new generation of manifest destiny. In fact, today Native Americans are both marginalized and mocked within our public education system. This has fueled a new generation of racism, thus leaving Native American heritage to endure a new diaspora from history. This paper will be addressing how Native Americans have been marginalized in education through the ignoring of Native American Heritage month, as well as mocked through their schools’ mascots. Most of us are aware at some level of the latter; however the former is less obvious in that most schools do not adequately address the past, present, and future of the first Americans.
Native American Heritage Month
Since the beginning of the 20th century, Native Americans have requested a time to remember and honor the rich history and contributions of the first Americans. In the early 1900’s, Dr. Arthur C. Parker, a Seneca Indian persuaded the Boy Scouts of America to set aside a time to honor Native Americans, however this idea was not fully recognized by any other group until 1915. In 1915, the Congress of the American Indian Association officially approved a plan concerning a day to honor Native American Indians (About – Native American Heritage Month). This would be the first time that Native Americans would unify under the banner of setting aside a national time to reflect upon their past, present, and future. Also in 1915 Red Fox James, a Blackfoot Indian, rode from state to state on horseback, seeking state approval of a day to honor Native Americans. Following his endeavor he presented to the White House an endorsement from 24 states of a Native American Indian Day. Nevertheless, this did not result in an annual national holiday however; it did lay the ground work for various states to attempt at a day to honor the first Americans.
In 1916, the State of New York would be the first state to set aside a day to honor Native Americans. However, it was not until 1990 that Congress called President George H.W. Bush to declare November 1990 as “National American Indian Heritage Month” as a time for the nation to honor the past and present contributions of the Native Americans. As a result of President George H.W. Bush’s proclamation every year since then the acting President of the United State has declared that the month of November be declared as “National American Indian Heritage Month” also known as “Native American Heritage Month.” (About – Native American Heritage Month.) The following is the declaration of the U.S. Congress concerning Native American Heritage Month:
“Now, therefore, be it Resolved by the Senate and the House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That the month of November 1990 is designated as “National American Indian Heritage Month,” and the President is authorized and requested to issue a proclamation calling upon Federal, State, and local governments, interested groups and organizations, and the people of the United States to observe the month with appropriate programs, ceremonies, and activities.” (United States. Cong.).
This proclamation is important in that it set a precedent that both sides of Congress agreed that this was important as well as every sitting president has found it important enough to release similar proclamations. Nevertheless, these proclamations have fallen on deaf ears and gone unenforced.
With that brief history of Native Americans, one must ask the question why this time has not been taken as seriously as Black History Month in our schools. I am not stating that Black History Month has been perfectly executed as much as Native American Heritage Month has. However, it must be stated that Native Americans have been essentially ignored within public schools and society as a whole, even on the month congressionally bestowed upon them. This is something that I will go into further detail later on, however, in my own personal experience, I have found this to be true simply by asking classmates and friends if they had ever heard of Native American Heritage Month, most had not. Today Native American Heritage Month “is a time to celebrate rich and diverse cultures, traditions and histories and to acknowledge the important contributions of Native people.” (Cladoosby). So if the Native Peoples have their own history month, are they actually being treated equally? The reality is that many students do not even know that Native Americans still live, and many more do not even know about Native American Heritage Month. Why?
Today most formal education about Native Americans in public schools K-12, centers on the fairy tale of the struggling pilgrims and their saviors, the friendly Indians. In fact according to one article by Indian Country Today, a respected Native American news source, found that according to all 50 U.S. states, 87 percent of all references to Native Americans was found to portray Native Peoples solely in a pre-1900 context. (Landry). This means that most students never learn of the heroic acts of the Native American Navajo soldiers in World War II, which used their poetic language as a code to be used in the South Pacific. This event spared the lives of many U.S. soldiers from certain death as the code could only be interpreted by fellow Navajo soldiers thus, making it impossible to break by the Axis forces in the South Pacific. In fact according to Professor Sarah Shears most states have zero standards for what needs to be covered in schools concerning education about Native Americans post-1900. (Shears). Below is Appendix A and excerpt from Professor Shears’ study on state standards concerning Native Americans in education.
Landry’s article goes on to point out that half of the U.S. states do not mention a single individual native and/or specific tribe in their historical overviews. The state of Kansas is one of four states to acknowledge the injustices of the Native American boarding schools, where students were whitewashed and forced to lose all essence of their culture. This whitewashing typically began with their physical changes in appearance, by making them look like white people, and then went inward by slowly removing their culture from them as a whole. In fact they made it illegal to even speak their native tongue or use their native names. In addition to this, the state of Washington is the only state to use the word “genocide” in regards to the atrocities done to the Native American Indians. In addition to this Landry points out that 90 percent of all manuscripts written about Native peoples are authored by non-Natives, this furthering a skewed perspective on the Native Peoples. This White-Eurocentric perspective is damaging to the understanding of the Native American perspective, as it tell us a narrative from an outsider’s perspective.
An example of the damaging practices of public education of Native Americans can be seen in looking at the textbooks of Nebraska. In the state of Nebraska’s social studies textbooks, Native Americans are portrayed as thieves, bloodthirsty, drunks, savages, and lazy. (Moore and Clark) (Sarah B. Shear). With this sort of portrayal we are led to believe a very negative perspective about Native Americans pre-1900’s, that leaves students not wanting to know more about these supposed villains of U.S. history.
In a study by Sarah B. Shear, assistant professor of Social Studies Education at Penn State University, she concluded that most states have zero standards for education of Native Americans Post-1900. In other words, most students K-12 are not taught about the contributions of Native Americans in U.S. history post-1900, thus removing them from existence in the 20th and 21st centuries.
“The narrative presented in U.S. history standards, when analyzed with a critical eye, directed students to see Indigenous Peoples as a long since forgotten episode in the country’s development. The state standards spoke about Indigenous peoples’ experiences in broad terms and were often blended within discussions of Euro-American destiny.” (Sarah B. Shear).
The reality is by relegating the teaching about Native Americans to pre-1900 and even worse, just Thanksgiving Day and Christopher Columbus lessons, we not only muddy the waters of the history of a people but we ultimately remove them from existence through an academic genocide.
Call to Action by Indians to Americans
In 2015 the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) came together to release Resolution #SD-15-054 as a renewed call for President Obama’s administration to finally address the marginalization of American Indians and Alaskan Indians in the public school system. The NCAI is a collaboration of Native American tribes who began unifying in 1944 to stand for Native American rights of 560 nationally recognized tribes. They believed the only way they could be taken seriously is if they stood together. (Mission & History). Last year in 2015 the NCAI released this call to President Obama’s administration:
“NOW THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED, that the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) urges the Administration to develop a new set of standards for teaching American History in K-12 schools and in post-secondary institutions that correctly assess the importance of American Indians to the narrative of American history, and that treats this history both from the point of view of American Indians, immigrants, emigrants and slaves who interacted with American Indians for the past 500 years…” (Cladoosby).
As it stands, nothing has been done by the President’s administration to address this call to action by the NCAI. In fact just a few days after this resolution by the NCAI, President Obama did the annual presidential announcing of November as National American Indian Heritage Month, and in his proclamation he did not acknowledge the call for better education. (Obama).
Individual State Responses
In 1972 the state of Montana added to its constitution a pledge to preserve the cultural heritage of Native Americans through education; however, this law went inactive for nearly thirty years. The Montana constitution merged in 2001 with the Indian Education for All (IEFA) Act, which states that all Montana students, whether native or non-native should receive education about American Indians. In 2005 it finally received financial backing. Today if you were to go to any public school in Montana you will see lessons being taught that acknowledge Native Americans. Montana remains the only state to have such a mandate in place, though other schools such as South Dakota and Wisconsin do have policies emphasizing the need to teach about local tribal history within public schools. Concerning IEFA the state of Montana provides the resources and standards, but it is the individual districts that choose how to meet the state standards. (Klein).
Currently there is no evidence on how such a law in Montana is impacting native and non-native students, but it is suggested by educators and policy makers that it is having a two-fold positive impact. Firstly, it is expanding non-native students understanding of other cultures, specifically that of natives as they learn about history of Native Americans. Secondly, and in many ways more importantly it is empowering native students to succeed in schools. Currently “native students have especially low standardized test scores and graduation rates, and native students in Montana are no exception.” (Klein). Christine Ayers, a fourth grade teacher in Montana, is cited by Klein concerning IEFA that “It helps the kids have this sense of, ‘We are here and we still need to be recognized and listened to as a group of kids who are striving to do our best and go to college.’” (Klein). Today we must look at the leadership of Montana as we implement the history and culture of the first Americans as well as those that came after them.
Damage from High School Mascots
If erasing the Native American Indians from history was not bad enough, our public schools have taken it another step further by distorting who they were and are today. According to ESPN’s blog FiveThirtyEight, in a report by Hayley Munguia, they reported that there are at least 42,624 athletic teams, 2,129 teams have some form of a Native American team name, and of those teams with Native American mascots, 92 percent belong to high schools. Of the high schools in this database 8.2 percent have Native American mascots. (Munguia).This list was compiled from all team mascots that are currently registered on http://www.MascotDB.com .
Let it be known that with all of these mascots the only ones to receive national level recognition are primarily select college names as well as professional teams, such as the Washington Redskins and Cleveland Indians. This is simply due to the sheer popularity of the teams due their performance in national sports as well as media coverage. This popularity has stirred the arguments of racism in mascots, which is still largely ignored at the high school level, where the majority of these controversial teams exist. Nevertheless let it also be known, that when it comes to Native American mascots those that are apart of professional teams are privately funded, however, those that belong to public high schools and public universities are federally and state funded. In other words that the vast majority of these racist mascots are being funded by the U.S. government, yet the ones to receive the most attention are the privately funded teams, not federally funded ones. My point in mentioning this is to state that the government is funding racism towards Native Americans within public schools.
Now if you have ever been to a high school game with a Native American mascot, they are typically a non-Native American in leather clothing, face painted, with feathers dancing around and chanting some racist chant like “Hooo…Hooo…” Growing up in Georgia, this was my experience at every high school game I would attend, which according Mungia has the fourth highest number of Native American mascots. Not only were these teams portraying Native Americans in a racist manner, but their opposing teams were being inducted into a racist culture against Native Americans. The best way to explain how dangerous this is for students of opposing teams is best expressed in an article cited by Steve Wulf, by Dahkota Kicking Bear Brown, a Miwok football player for Argonaut High School in Jackson, California entitled “Missing The Point.”
“One of our school’s biggest rivals is the Calaveras Redskins … Little do they know how damaging their game-time routines are… Worst of all, the most offensive stuff doesn’t even come from the Redskins. It comes from their rival schools, mine included. I have heard my own friends yelling around me, ‘Kill the Redskins!’ or ‘Send them on the Trail of Tears!'” (Wulf).
Taken from an article by Indian Country Today Media Network entitled:
“Oklahoma State Fans Hold ‘Trail of Tears’ Banner for College GameDay”
What about Honor?
Today many people seek to argue that the reasoning behind these American Indian team mascots is to honor the Native Americans they are representing; however, for most Native Americans this is not honor. In fact if it were another ethnic group this would not be a discussion. Today one of the most controversial high school mascot names would be the name “Redskins.” This is a name that is used for high schools, colleges, and professional teams, yet people want to argue that it is a term of honor, yet all would agree a team like Blackskins or Yellowskins would be completely racist and inappropriate. In addition to this as mentioned in a CNN article by Michael Martinez, the term “Redskins” “points back to an age where Indians were portrayed as dumb, evil, savages by white people.” (Martinez).
According to an article by C. Richard King in the Journal of Sport and Social Issues, Native American mascots are typically interpreted as a,
“series of misappropriations and misinterpretations, rooted in antiquated, fictitious, and racist, if often romantic, notions of Indianness. Indeed, attending to stereotypes has unveiled the persistence of the good and the bad Indian, the noble and ignoble savage in the American (imperial) imagination.” (King).
In other words Native American mascots are either portrayed as noble warriors or and crazy, dumb savages. An example of a mascot portraying Native Americans in a negative manner is the Cleveland Indians mascot Chief Wahoo. According to King this mascot “encapsulates the exaggerated nose, the buffoonish smile, and the single feather offering a false, malicious, and bigoted parody of Native Americans” (King). If you have ever seen the mascot, he really does look like a buffoon. With a head that looks like it belongs on a bobble head, Chief Wahooo removes both the dignity of those it is pointing too and their humanity making them nothing more than a joke named Wahoo.
|Below is a chart displaying the Cleveland Indian Logo/Mascot evolution from 1915 to 2016 (www.enikone.com)|
The University of Illinois has chosen to name their mascot as a means to honor the Native American heritage of the state. Nevertheless, in the midst of their desire to honor the Native Peoples, the mascot has typically been portrayed as a non-native male, who is selected after their tryouts (King ). In other words, in order to play a Native American one does not need to be Native American, and this in my opinion is no worse than someone dressing up in black face.
King points out in his article that many of those that seem to argue that these mascots are not racist, but merely a means to honor the native peoples are made by those who are not native or at least only partially of native descent. In other words those that are not actively registered Native Americans seem to want to impose their opinions of honor, regardless of how the true natives feel. This would be the same as asking someone, whose great, great grandfather was from England, to vote for the next British Prime Minister.
What is the Aftermath if Neither Issue is Resolved?
If we do not resolve these issues of marginalization and mockery, the aftermath will be nothing more than a scholastic genocide of the Native Peoples. As seen by the lack of acknowledging of Native Americans post 1900’s, students are now left to believe that natives are no longer alive. In addition to this, due to the lack of proper education about natives, students are succumbed to a skewed understanding of the Native Peoples. This skewing of Native Americans is only enhanced by the usage of racist mascots that redefine who Native Americans are. For example one of the most racist sayings I have heard about Indians is the statement, “dots or feathers?” This notion that thanks to the lack of modern historical discussion of Native Peoples as well as the lack of modern representations of them, one is left to assume all Native Americans wear feathers. On top of this we still have the horrific notion that those from India all have dots on their heads.
How Can they be Resolved?
At this point the question must be asked of what we can do, or rather what we should do. First we must look at states like Montana and begin to make appropriate measures in correcting the problems within our education. Secondly the states if not the federal government must raise the standards of what the school textbooks should include. Thirdly the government needs to enforce that schools acknowledge Native American History month more seriously and in the same manner that Black History month is. Though the more appropriate method for both African Americans and Native American history would be to weave their history into the U.S. narrative and not simply ignore them until their designated months. Fourthly we must remove Native American mascots from public schools. The U.S. government should never be funding racism, especially in schools. All of these are easily doable by the U.S. government; however we must begin to write to our representatives asking them for change. Until then we can seek to redefine our culture as simply as asking questions in schools about Native Americans as well as simply boycotting racist mascots.
Today we stand at a precipice in U.S. history, where social justice issues are more and more at the forefront of discussion in schools, politics, and everyday life. Today we live in an age where an African American is president as well as our next president may very well be a woman. We live in an age where love wins and anyone can get married regardless of their sexuality or race. Today we see that issues of equality towards women, African Americans, and Latinos are being addressed. In fact they are not just being addressed, but they are actually making steps towards proper change. Nevertheless in the face of all of this social change we must not forget the first Americans, lest a new era of manifest destiny sweep across this nation finalizing what began with Europeans so long ago.
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Oklahoma State Fans Hold ‘Trail of Tears’ Banner for College GameDay Read More at Http://indiancountrytodaymedianetwork.com/2014/08/30/oklahoma-state-fans-hold-trail-tears-banner-college-gameday-156681.” Indian Country Today Media Network, 30 Aug. 2014. Web. 29 Apr. 2016.
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