We have a moral obligation to learn Native American history

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Recent announcements by Canadian First Nation Tribes — Tk’emlups te Secwepemc, Cowessess First Nation, Lower Kootenay Band and the Penelakut Tribe — of unmarked graves on the grounds of former Indian boarding schools where Indigenous children were mistreated understandably grabbed headlines and shocked many.   

Sadly, most Americans are unaware that similar abuses took place across 30 states from 1869 through 1978. Hundreds of thousands of Native American children were removed from their tribal communities and forced to attend government and church-run boarding schools for the purpose of cultural assimilation into U.S. society.  

For over 100 years, these 350-plus institutions tried to replace Native American values, languages and ways of life with Christianity, Western traditions and the English language. At its peak, an estimated 83 percent of American Indian children were attending these boarding schools where they endured physical and sexual abuse in addition to hard labor and disease. 

Tragically, many children never returned to their tribal communities and their families do not know what happened to them. Unfortunately, this and other injustices against Native Americans are scantily taught in America’s classrooms, if at all. The recent unmarked grave discoveries should serve as an impetus to change the way we teach the history of indigenous peoples. 

The stakes are high. A failure to teach young people about these injustices almost ensures that America’s non-Indigenous population will fail to comprehend the historical trauma suffered by Native Americans and the accompanying high rates of substance abuse, addiction and suicide. 

These blind spots can hinder the ability of our country’s future voters and their elected representatives to understand the plight of Native Nations, likely prolonging ineffective and harmful federal Indian policy coming out of Washington. 

Unless we are grounded with an awareness of how the mistreatment of Native Americans over the centuries is linked to their current poor outcomes in health, economic opportunity and education, how can we expect our fellow citizens to elect members of Congress who will take seriously the federal government’s trust responsibility towards Indian Country? And how can we have confidence that the right people will be appointed to important positions within the federal bureaucracy that have crucial duties and obligations toward tribes? 

While the confirmation of former Rep. Deb Haaland (D-N.M.) to U.S. Interior Secretary was a positive development because of her professional experience in Indian Country and Native American heritage, there is no guarantee that future administrations will make similar farsighted appointments. 

Secretary Haaland’s recent announcement of the Interior Department’s forthcoming inquiry into the former Indian boarding schools and their painful legacy is a needed, overdue step toward learning more about their inter-generational impacts on Tribal Nations.

Yet, efforts to educate about Native American history must begin in our schools. School districts need to enhance curriculum to include the entire spectrum of Native American history, from their noble traditions to the tragic mistreatment they have endured for six centuries. 

Students must be taught about the violence, theft and marginalization that Native Americans have faced and the present challenges they grapple with. They must learn about Native Americans’ contributions to American society, such as their military service in greater numbers than all other groups from the 1770s to the present day. 

Specifically, schools must provide a more thorough accounting of the Native American experience — Indigenous culture, the principles of tribal sovereignty, approaches to tribal government and tribes’ relations with Washington and the states. 

Just as junior high and high schools budget for field trips to Washington, educational institutions could allocate resources for study trips to appropriate destinations that provide meaningful learning opportunities about American Indians, their varied traditions and histories. 

To properly augment Native American studies programs, educators must be equipped with all of the tools available in teaching today — the latest publications, virtual programs, field trips, guest lectures, exhibitions, streaming services and symposia, among other mediums.     

While there are exceptions, most school districts in the U.S. have not developed meaningful educational partnerships and exchanges with Tribal Nations. Enhanced collaboration between schools and tribes can go a long way toward improving course offerings and providing students with added perspective. 

At the university level, undergraduate programs should include a Native American history course as a general education requirement, and law schools ought to institute a class on federal Indian policy as a prerequisite for graduation. Such measures will prepare students for the future by building critical thinking skills that are steeped in history, equipping them with the tools to avoid repetition of past injustices.   

Making headway in this endeavor will involve a long-term, sustained effort. The mistakes of the past cannot be undone, but it is our moral obligation to provide America’s next generation with a solid foundation of Indian Country’s history. By doing so, we must help cultivate more thoughtful and empathetic voters on the issues facing Tribal Nations, their aspirations and our collective future. 

Ted Gover, Ph.D., is director of the Tribal Administration Program at Claremont Graduate University. Follow him on Twitter @TedGover.

Tags American Indian boarding schools Contemporary Native American issues in the United States Deb Haaland indigenous peoples Native American history

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