Educators aim to accurately depict Native American issues, history

By Gabriella Beker

Elizabeth Close is teaching her Anderson High School Ethnic Studies students about Native American issues this November, but is hoping to go beyond the narrative of what they’ve always learned.

In her class, they’re discussing issues such as the Keystone pipeline, Standing Rock, the Oglala protests, missing indigenous people within the U.S. and Canada and more.

“The vast majority of these things, students have said they’ve never heard of,” she said. “I think often, we as a society and even as history teachers, think about or teach about indigenous people in the past tense, but it’s important that students know about issues today.”

This November, as part of Native American Heritage month, teachers across the district are engaging their students in honest discussions about Native American and Indigenous history, culture and experiences.

Rebecca Flores, a multilingual instructional coach, takes a similar approach with students at Lively Middle School. Last year, she worked with teachers to help students gain a better understanding of Native and Indigenous identities through social-emotional learning.

“We started looking at things like mascots, and ways that indigenous people have been represented,” Flores said. “We also had students think critically about the name change of our campus and other name changes around town, in the United States and in sports teams.”

Beyond November

Some teachers are taking a more complete approach to Native American and Indigenous history.

“We are already fully engrossed in having Native American heritage built into our curriculum,” said Shannon Jones, an eighth grade U.S. History teacher at Kealing Middle School. “In our seventh and eighth grade curriculum, it’s built into every unit.”

Jones believes that this approach will help students have a more complete understanding of Native and Indigenous people and their history.

“So often in history it’s taught as victimhood, but they were very active and involved," Jones said. "They obviously had horrific things happen to them, but this was a group of really organized and intelligent people who were actively fighting for their survival."

In other classes across the district, students have required readings about Native American and Indigenous history and cultures in November. Throughout the year, they revisit the history of colonization, western expansion and the American revolution from the perspective of Native peoples and Europeans who moved onto their lands.

Both Close and Flores will continue exploring Native American and Indigenous issues and identities with their students after November. They will discuss the connections with other movements, such as environmental protection and building awareness of the original inhabitants of land.

Flores adds that it’s important to recognize how indigenous cultures inform students’ identities today. She has partnered with an indigenous Aztec dance group from the University of Texas to perform for the school and host workshops for the Dual Language and English as a Second Language classes.

“Our goal is to make sure that we not only focus on the U.S. identity and what indigeneity means, but also what it means for Latin American people,” Flores said.

Responding to legislation

Close and Flores said they aren’t concerned about how recent legislation affects their lessons around Native American and Indigenous history and culture. Still, they are wary of the laws, which aim to restrict discussion about topics in history and current events related to race.  

“I think that teachers can continue to teach what they want to teach, to teach accurate, true and difficult histories, while still staying within a respectful boundary of the law,” Close said.

Jones and Flores said that they also don’t intend on changing their plans in light of the legislation and will continue to create inclusive and thought-provoking classroom discussions.

“We’re providing all of these different perspectives so that the students can make a determination for themselves as to what that history is, since the Native American perspective is one that has been left out for so long,” Jones said.

Room for growth

Despite the work that is being done in some classrooms, many Native American community members in Austin worry that these efforts are not practiced across the district.

Skye Howell is a parent of a second grader at Becker Elementary School and a board member for Great Promise for American Indians.

“It’s really important, as a parent of a child that is Native, to understand the truth of our shared history, that he be represented in the classroom and that he sees himself and his people as those who have contributed to making our culture and society as it is,” Howell said. “Native and indigenous people were the foundations of this country, and we’re still here.”

Howell hopes the district will disrupt the one-sided European narrative and push for more representation of Native American and Indigenous authors and contemporary Native American leaders throughout the curriculum district-wide. She is also advocating for Native and Indigenous students to be included in multilingual education.

“We need to be the ones telling our stories, not somebody else, not an anthropologist and certainly not people who have white-washed history to not honor and understand what’s really happened,” Howell said.

Outside of the classroom, Howell encourages Native American and Indigenous students to learn more about their cultures and histories through organizations such as Great Promise for American Indians or the Indigenous Cultures Institute in San Marcos.

“At some point, we had to give ourselves permission to reclaim our language, our culture and our traditions,” she said. “I would encourage any student to give themselves that permission to relearn your language, culture and traditions and there are so many people in our community that will help you to reconnect along the way.”