Native American students hope a new education law helps reverse years of misinformation (2023)

In summary

A new law will encourage California school districts to work with local Native American tribes to develop history lessons for students. For too long, students and tribal leaders say, schools have lacked an in-depth and accurate history curriculum that addresses their culture.

Sixteen-year-old Raven Casas recalled one English assignment where her teacher sent the students a link to a website called “Native American Artifacts.” The students had to select an artifact and write about its symbolism. But when Casas clicked on the link she found images of merchandise touting the Kansas City Chiefs pro football team.

“They were just things with Native American symbols on them, and they called them Native American artifacts,” she said. “I just educated him about how this was wrong and how this assignment was offensive.”

That’s why Native American students like Casas and tribal leaders are applauding a new law signedby Gov. Gavin Newsom last week. It establishes the California Indian Education Act, which encourages school districts to collaborate with local Native American tribes to develop history lessons and strategies for closing the achievement gap for Indigenous students. Local districts would then submit their task forces’ work to the state, helping California become an authority in serving Native American students.

Tribal leaders believe a better education in Indigenous history will not only enrich all students but also lead to better high school graduation rates and healthier lives for Native American youth.

“Educating our people kind of takes us out of the shadows,” said Casas. “It shines some light on the true side of things.”

“Educating our people kind of takes us out of the shadows.”

16-year-old Raven Casas

Casas is a member of the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians, a Native American tribe based in San Bernardino County. Casas and her peers say that despite their own ancestral roots in the region, public schools have failed to educate students about their tribe’s history.

Casas said that instead of completing the artifact assignment, she turned in a message to her teacher educating him about her culture. She said she received no grade or feedback for the assignment. In fact, Casas said, the teacher never acknowledged her note to him. She said this new law might help eliminate other ill-informed assignments.

“I would like to shift the perspective of the curriculum to the Native American point of view,” Casas said.

Native American students hope a new education law helps reverse years of misinformation (1)

Johnny Hernandez, the vice chairman of the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians who advocated for the new law, emphasized the importance of local history.

“It’s important because as California nations, every single tribal community has unique cultural identities,” Hernandez said. “It’s important for people to learn about native tribes in their regions.”

The new law was authored as a bill by California Assemblymember James Ramos of Rancho Cucamonga, the only Native American member in the state Legislature. This law would require task forces to submit annual reports to the California Department of Education, which would then submit a report to the Senate and Assembly Education Committees. Legislators would use these reports to inform future policies.

The bill was supported unanimously in the state Senate and Assembly. Teachers unions, the California Charter Schools Association and State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond all supported the legislation.

“We have to start at the local level,” Ramos said. “The goal is for that local knowledge to feed up to the state and you can have a clearinghouse of all the cultures in California”

Ramos, also a member of the San Manuel tribe, said the bill is long overdue. He remembers one of his own teachers asking him and his fellow tribal members to interpret a Native American drum song from a tribe outside of California. He said his teacher shamed him because he didn’t know how.

“We were told to sit down because we must not be Native American,”Ramos said.

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James Ramos

State Assembly, District 40 (Rancho Cucamonga)

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District 40 Demographics


Latino 48%

White 29%

Asian 9%

Black 10%

Multi-race 3%

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Dem 42%

GOP 30%

No party 22%

Other 8%

Campaign Contributions

Asm. James Ramos has taken at least $1.3 million from the Party sector since he was elected to the legislature. That represents 59% of his total campaign contributions.

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Last year, when a Riverside high school teacher dressed up in a fake feather headdress and imitated a Native American chant to illustrate a math concept, the insensitivity felt familiar to Ramos. But today, there’s enough political momentum to better inform teachers and students and prevent future incidents.

And while the law doesn’t require districts to form task forces, Hernandez says it’s a step in the right direction.

“I’m hoping people are interested in doing the right thing,” he said. “Time will tell, but tribal people will never stop fighting for this.”

Hernandez said his tribe is still working on designing course materials for local districts, but he cited the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians as an example of a tribe that has already developed curricula. The tribe, based in Palm Springs, created lesson plans for third, eighth and 11th grades that taught students about tribal history, culture and land use.

The hands-on curriculum used real tribal artifacts to teach students about local customs. The program earned recognition from the Harvard University Project on American Indian Economic Development.

Hernandez said cultural ignorance can fuel cariactures like the incident in Riverisde, while a thoughtful curriculum can help Native American students form “a well-rounded view of who they are as a tribal person.” Hernandez hopes a stronger sense of identity will also translate into higher high school graduation rates.

In 2021, Native American students had a graduation rate of 73%, lower than any other racial or ethnic group except Black students. Less than a third of graduating Native American students completed the courses needed to attend a University of California or California State University, the lowest college-readiness rate among all races and ethnicities.

Hernandez said better education in one’s own culture and history can have ripple effects outside the classroom, especially within Native American communities that experience disproportionate rates of drug abuse and suicide.

“How do you help the whole student and not just the academic parts?” he said. “It’s about looking at the student in a well-rounded way.”

A richer history curriculum leads to less misunderstanding. Less misunderstanding leads to Native American students feeling like they belong on campus, Hernandez said.

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“When people think about San Manuel they only think about casinos,” he said. “We have the opportunity to talk about what it means to be a tribal government.”

“When people think about San Manuel they only think about casinos. We have the opportunity to talk about what it means to be a tribal government.”

Johnny Hernandez, vice chairman of the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians

Hernandez’s 16-year-old son Gauge, who traveled to Sacramento to lobby for the bill before it became law, said his classmates stereotype Native Americans as wealthy casino owners.

“I feel like this happens every single week or month,” Gauge said. “As a Native American, they think all I am is a money machine.”

But Gauge and Casas both want young Californians to know how their people got to where they are today: the genocide and displacement that preceded the present success of some Native Americans.

“In the curriculum, it’s important to maintain our culture and identity,” Gauge said. “We need to see it in a better way.”

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What was the Indian education Act and how did that affect education for Native Americans? ›

1972: The Indian Education Act empowers parents; funds student programs. The Indian Education Act establishes the Office of Indian Education and the National Advisory Council on Indian Education, and provides federal funds for American Indian and Alaska Native education at all grade levels.

What is the goal of the Native American education Program? ›

Strong Native Roots. Strong Native Bonds. The purpose of the Native American Education Program is to meet the unique cultural, language, and educational needs of American Indian, Alaskan Native students; and ensure that all students meet the challenging State academic standards.

Why do Native Americans struggle with education? ›

While 28% of the general population holds a college degree, only 13% of Native Americans have a college degree. A lack of funding and resources coupled with geographic isolation can be a major obstacle for students who want to receive a quality education.

Why is Native American dropout rate so high? ›

Significant problems behind high dropout rates on Native American reservations in the United States include poverty, lack of support from elders and differing expectations and ways of communicating between teachers and students in the classroom.

Why are Native students being left behind? ›

This stems not just from Congressionally-imposed funding cutbacks, but also from federal agencies undercounting Native kids, or from Native families failing to self identify because they're unwilling to face bias, uninformed of their rights, or not enrolled in any federally recognized tribe.

What led to the Indian Self Determination and education Assistance Act of 1975? ›

The Act was the result of 15 years of change, influenced by American Indian activism, the Civil Rights Movement, and community development based on grassroots political participation.

Why should Native Americans be taught in schools? ›

The history of Native Americans is incredibly long and significant, dating thousands of years and persisting after the pre-Columbian Era. Learning this past is essential to understanding not only the current state of Indigenous peoples, but the state of our country as well.

Why is it important to teach students about Native Americans? ›

Simply stated, when all students know the correct narrative about Native Americans and learn the vital, unique and ongoing contributions of this country's original inhabitants, there is greater understanding — and ultimately better outcomes for students, communities and our nation.

What are some challenges facing teachers of Native American students? ›

Racism. Failure of educators to recognize and draw on American Indian students' gifts and talents. Lack of American Indian teachers and school leaders. Poverty.

Why do Native American students drop out of college? ›

The research reported in this chapter shows that academically capable Native students often drop out of school because their needs are not being met while others are pushed out because they protest in a variety of ways how they are treated in school.

Should Indigenous culture be taught in schools? ›

Incorporating Indigenous values into school spaces can make education relevant to Indigenous students and give non-Indigenous students opportunities to learn about Indigenous history and culture through an Indigenous perspective.

How do Native American students learn best? ›

American Indians typically learn best by visually reinforced teaching approaches, not lecture and copy. Participatory project based thematic instruction works wonders for any child.

What percentage of Native Americans drop out of school? ›

Culturally insensitive and incompetent educators continue to be a problem. “Recent statistics from the Bureau of Indian Affairs have noted that between 29 percent and 36 percent of all Native American students drop out of high school. They mostly drop out between the 7th and 12th grades.

What is the average education level of Native Americans? ›

Only 19% of Native Americans ages 18 to 24 are enrolled in college compared with 41% of the overall U.S. population, according to the Postsecondary National Policy Institute.

How many Native Americans have a college degree? ›

The numbers tell part of the story: recent data from the Postsecondary Policy Institute shows that less than 10 percent of Native Americans receive their associate degree, and only 16 percent attain a bachelor's degree or higher.

Why is life on an Indian reservation so difficult? ›

Low qualities of life exist in developing countries as well as developed countries, including the United States. Within the 326 Native American reservations in the U.S., Indigenous peoples experience unequal life conditions. Those on reservations face discrimination, violence, poverty and lack of access to education.

How much do Native Americans get from the government? ›

Ever wonder how much assistance the federal government allocates to American Indian tribes and communities each year? It comes to about $20 billion a year, give or take a few hundred million dollars, a document from the Department of the Interior shows.

What percentage of Native Americans graduate from high school? ›

Native Americans also have a lower overall high school graduation rate: about 65 percent earn a high school diploma compared with 75.2 percent of the U.S. population. Their college graduation rate is also much lower, with 9.3 percent earning a college degree compared with the national average of 20.3 percent.

What is meant by Indian education? ›

The school system in India has four levels: lower primary (age 6 to 10), upper primary (11 and 12), high (13 to 15) and higher secondary (17 and 18). The lower primary school is divided into five “standards”, upper primary school into two, high school into three and higher secondary into two.

What was the purpose of the Indian Relocation Act? ›

The Indian Relocation Act of 1956 (also known as Public Law 959 or the Adult Vocational Training Program) was a United States law intended to encourage Native Americans in the United States to leave Indian reservations, acquire vocational skills, and assimilate into the general population.

How was the Indian education Act of 1972 amended in 1974? ›

The Educational Amendment of 1974 added two sections to Part B to provide the authority to fund special teacher education programs and issue fellowships to Native American students in graduate and professional programs.

What is the education Amendments Act of 1972? ›

Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 (Title IX) prohibits sex (including pregnancy, sexual orientation, and gender identity) discrimination in any education program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.


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