Teachers Should Not Do These When Educating Native Youth
Above Photo: Students line a busy intersection and overpass protesting a Jefferson County School Board proposal to emphasize patriotism and downplay civil unrest in the teaching of U.S. history, in the Denver suburb of Littleton, Colorado, Thursday, September 25, 2014. Several hundred students walked out of class Thursday in the fourth straight day of protests in Jefferson County.
American Indian and Alaska Native students remain a very special and uniquely vulnerable population, often suffering from educational experiences that either fail to serve them adequately or that cause them to feel alienated, invisible, or unsupported. Teachers who serve Native youth must be cognizant of the unique needs of indigenous students, and their communities. Teachers who serve Native youth must also be willing to examine their preconceived notions of Native Americans, and then make the necessary adjustments in order to give Native youth a meaningful education that they deserve and need.
To best serve Native youth, here are some more important dos and don’ts for educators:
1. DON’T ever overlook students’ indigenous identity, or attempt to see them through a “colorblind” lens
Native Americans have suffered centuries of forced assimilation and marginalization. Do not maintain the erasure of Indigenous Peoples by failing to acknowledge the unique identity of your indigenous students. Attempting to see them through a colorblind lens actually causes harm, as important parts of their identity are being ignored.
DO acknowledge each student’s unique tribal identity, and see them for the totality of who they are. Respectfully inquire about their tribal affiliation(s), learn how to pronounce them correctly, and if the student has a name in their indigenous language, take the time to learn to pronounce it correctly, and learn the meaning, too.
2. DON’T speak of Native Americans as a people of the past
Popular American culture has continuously portrayed Native Americans as a people of the past. Textbooks contribute to this problem. Speaking of Native Americans in the past tense maintains harmful stereotypes and makes Native youth feel invisible and unimportant.
DO teach regularly about modern Native American people. When teaching social studies, make sure to include Native American experiences regularly, as they have been present in all eras of history, evolving and changing like all other people.
3. DON’T teach stereotypical lessons like Thanksgiving
DO be aware of the very white-washed lessons that gloss over real and tragic indigenous history. If you’re going to teach about Thanksgiving, teach the real version and from the perspective of the Wampanoag tribe that was attacked by settlers after helping them.
4. DON’T use stereotypical language to describe Native Americans or Native American culture
Many early U.S. government documents refer to Native Americans as “savages,” as does much of early American literature. Do not gloss over this, and do not use this language to describe Native American people. It is dehumanizing and damages the self-esteem of Native American youth. Also, do not use words such as “squaw,” “papoose,” or “tom-tom.”
DO learn appropriate terminology and tribal-specific language. Be open to deconstructing what you thought appropriate terms were, and prepare abandon words you may have become accustomed to using.
5. DON’T deny or minimize indigenous genocide
That Native Americans make up only 1-percent of the American population today, speaks directly to the genocide that occurred on American soil. Denying the centuries of mass killings of Indigenous Peoples robs them of their history, and their right to healing from the past. It also denies all American students from learning valuable humanitarian lessons.
DO acknowledge indigenous tragedies throughout history, and teach about them responsibly, and with sensitivity. Learn about the tribes in your area and their history of struggle and survival.
6. DON’T dismiss Native students’ emotions as they relate to history, racism or controversial issues
Native American students often experience intense emotions, such as anger, anxiousness, or sadness when learning about the many tragedies of the past inflicted by white settlers. They also may have unique experiences with racism that they cannot fully articulate or understand. Do not respond to their anger with more anger, or make them feel as if they are wrong or bad for feeling those emotions.
DO give students space and time to express themselves honestly and authentically, and respond with empathy. If you do not understand their emotions, you must first recognize your own privilege, then take the time to familiarize yourself with indigenous perspectives on topics like the Indian mascot issue, Thanksgiving, and Columbus Day.
7. DON’T ask Native American students to speak for their race
Do not ask Native students, “What do Native Americans think?” or “You’re Native American. What do you think?” This puts them on the spot, and puts undue pressure on them to have all the answers for all Native American people, which is impossible.
DO give students the option to express their thoughts when comfortable. If they are a minority among a majority of non-Native students in the classroom, consider talking to them one-on-one a day or so beforehand about certain lessons, and ask if they’d like to contribute something.
8. DON’T assume that they aren’t Native American based on their name, or physical appearance
Many Native American students today are of multiple ethnic identities. Just because they are mixed with another race, don’t assume that they identify solely with the group they bear the most physical traits of. Regardless of what they look like, do not ever make them feel any less Native American.
DO recognize that Native Americans, like all other ethnic groups, are extremely diverse.
9. DON’T ever suggest that they should be less of who they are, forget the past, or become more mainstream
Do not ever remark negatively about Native American culture or generalize Native American communities negatively. Do not tell students that they should “just get over it,” in regard to the past, and do not ever make them feel like they need to shed their beautiful and unique identity.
DO create space in your school and your classroom for Native students to express their identity freely, and let them know that you see them and value them for who they are.
10. DON’T give up on them
This may seem like a given for any student, but educators of Native youth, especially, must be aware of the dismal statistics of Native American youth, who suffer disproportionately high rates of discipline, suspension, and even expulsion from schools. Native American youth who are suspended from school suffer even greater risks of self-harm, incarceration, and even suicide. Do not lose patience for the most challenging students. They need your time and patience the most.
DO meet all students where they are, not where you are, and set high expectations for all students, as this communicates to them that you value them, you see their potential, and you recognize their intelligence.