American Indians are undervalued because of miseducation


  • Meet Nola Lodge and Forrest S. Cuch (slideshow best viewed in full-screen mode)

Many American Indians today say their culture and history have been lost. They are now fighting to restore truth to the curriculum.

For years, elementary school students have been taught that Columbus discovered a new land, America — a land of promise, a land of riches, a land of hope. But many American Indians do not find that promise, those riches or that hope. Instead, they reflect on the stories of their childhood education and cringe with feelings of hopelessness, confusion and displacement.

“The truth isn’t out there, you have to dig for it. … American Indians were always portrayed as in the way,” says Nola Lodge, professor of multicultural education at the University of Utah and a member of the Oneida Tribe of Wisconsin.

And marginalization for some creates privileges for others.

An article by Ruth Anne Olson titled, “White Privilege in Schools,” explains how today’s culture provides specific privileges to certain students. Olson lists many of these privileges, including, “My children take for granted that the color of any crayons, bandages, or other supplies in their classroom labeled ‘flesh’ will be similar to their own.” After listing several more of these privileges she writes, “My family never asked for these privileges; principals and teachers didn’t purposely create them for us; and, frankly neither they nor we have been consciously aware these privileges exist.” If the privileged students didn’t ask for the privileges, and the principals and teachers didn’t create them on purpose, and if no one has been consciously aware of the privileges, then why do they exist?

Lodge teaches classes on diversity so she is very aware of issues of privilege related to skin tone. She firmly believes that when children are taught early what difference is, their perceptions of who is valued changes. In addition, prejudice and stereotypes carry on into adulthood. She still experiences them today as a successful woman.

Lodge is helping to prepare many American Indian students begin their careers in education. It is not only important to get the truth about history out there, but to also get a variety of people teaching that history to help students understand difference at a young age, she says. When white students go to school they understand they can succeed. They see people just like themselves succeeding. The teachers know how to teach white students, they can relate. What about the other students? Children from different backgrounds learn differently and when they relate personally to their teacher, they succeed at a must faster rate.

“It should be K-12 students who should … accept that there is diversity. Difference is not change. This is why we need to change the curriculum,” Lodge says. She continues to tell a story from the Civil War, a subject commonly covered in history classes. When students learn about General Ulysses S. Grant they seldom learn that Ely Parker, his adjunct, his right-hand man, was a chief’s son and like Grant, an alumnus of West Point. They were equals in education. Their histories were equally important because they were both fighting for their country, for their land and for their beliefs. These small yet significant details are the ones left out of history books. These details are the ones that could give American Indian students, those fighting for recognition and truth, someone to emulate as they strive for success.

Forrest S. Cuch, executive director of the Utah Division of Indian Affairs, is very concerned about the education of children. Cuch, a member of the Ute Tribe, wants them to understand the truth about American Indians, but knows they often hear very little about Indians in school. In a recent interview he quoted Thomas Jefferson as saying, “Our democracy hinges upon an educated public.” Cuch explained that children are the future of the country. They are tomorrow’s leaders and when part of the history of their own country is omitted from history books, lessons and much needed education is left behind as well. He believes this knowledge is part of the identity of each student and without it some are getting lost.

“Without an education there is no identity, no foundation. If I am ashamed of my history or my people, if I am not part of my own culture, I am lost. If I am part of nothing then I lose that identity,” Cuch says. He believes that this identity is being taken away from all students today.

Lodge has also thought about her own identity and how the knowledge of the truth plays a part in it. She takes a different stand, however, saying, “[The truth] informs you about that identity. It doesn’t give you an identity.” Lodge understands that life and one’s own culture build who you are, and the knowledge acquired along the way adds to it.

The most important thing Lodge has learned through teaching multicultural education and American Indian education “is how much still needs to be done.” She knows there are ways to improve what is being taught in schools; she knows that with effort, the truth will get out there.

American Indians have a past that teaches all who are willing to learn. They hold the stories and the truths that history books have omitted. Cuch says his “original culture is hanging on, barely. But it is covered with layers and layers of scars.” Like Lodge, he knows that when the truth of American Indians is in the school curricula in Utah, those scars will fade and the culture that is slipping away will return and become stronger. “I am not hopeless,” Cuch says.

Teaching Native American children in Utah


Forrest S. Cuch, 57, executive director of the Utah Division of Indian Affairs, is a man with a mission to change the way Native children are educated in Utah.

Despite improvements in the state’s education system over the past decade, Native American children continue to struggle scholastically. With high drop-out rates and low test scores, they remain one of the lowest achieving minority groups in the state.  

LeAnn Johnson, 46, has been teaching high school math in Utah County for almost 20 years. During her years as a teacher, she has taught many Native American students and often finds herself frustrated and confused because they are not reaching their potential.

“I see so many of my [Native American] students drop out before they receive a diploma,” Johnson said. “The students that do graduate seldom go on to seek higher education. I wish these students would see how much potential they have.”

Cuch, an enrolled member of the Ute Indian Tribe, is also troubled that many Native American students are struggling academically.

“American Indians are the lowest achievers,” he said. “[They have] high drop-out rates, nearly 50 percent.”

Cuch has made it a priority to help improve Native American education in Utah. He believes there is a direct link between the quality of education and the quality of society.

“Education is important to building civilization, society,” he said. “Our future hinges on the education of our citizens.”

Through his job with the Utah Division of Indian Affairs, Cuch has worked to determine why some Native American children are not succeeding in school. He thinks one of the main reasons is because they learn differently.

“Indian children are different culturally. Our kids think differently,” he said. “The Indian world depends on feeling, the white world on intellect.”

Cuch stresses that Native American children learn better in interactive formats, and rely heavily on emotion and relationships. He said education today is often too rigid and ignores the individual needs and feelings of children. 

Teachers often don’t recognize the unique learning abilities of Native American children, he said, so they fall behind — not because they are not intelligent, but simply because they learn differently.

“We need to humanize education more. We have dehumanized it,” Cuch said. “The best way to teach is from the heart, from love. There is no better curriculum than love.”

Cuch said it is essential for Native American children to be educated about their history. Too often, this history is simply skimmed over in the classroom. And when it is covered, facts are often wrong and portray Native Americans in a demeaning or overly negative light.

He believes it is critical to a Native American child’s development to learn about their history in an accurate and positive manner. Children need to know their American Indian history in order to understand who they are.

“In many ways our history is alive and it still affects how we feel today,” he said. 

Cuch has worked on various projects to help improve the way children are educated in Utah.  He has worked with the American West Center to develop an accurate Native American history curriculum for Utah schools. He is also developing guides for teachers on how to teach Native American history.

Cuch said the government plays the most pivotal role in changing the way that Native American children are educated. He is an advocate of more funding for schools, better training for teachers and higher-quality schools on reservations. All of these improvements require the complete support of Utah’s government.

“We cannot have quality education without quality government,” Cuch said.

He believes he has an obligation to help improve the way the state prioritizes education.

“Our government is ours,” he said. “Democracy hinges on an educated government. If we don’t get involved in government it runs us.” 

Empowerment through education


According to the National Center for Education Statistics, enrollment in public elementary and secondary schools rose 26 percent between 1985 and 2007. As enrollment in public schools and adult education programs increases in the United States, the quality of what is taught to children and adults becomes more important.

Jennifer Isleib, a University of Utah student majoring in education, said education is the key to the future.

“Without the education of the past and present, humanity would be lost,” said Isleib, who works as a teacher’s aid at Dilworth Elementary. “Knowing our past is how we are going to make changes in the future, especially with young children because they are our future voice.”

One of the most important subjects in school is history. One aspect of history that is very important is learning about American Indians, said David Keyes, a social studies specialist in the Salt Lake City School District.

He believes that teaching children about American Indians is important because their story is everyone’s story.

“We need to know about the many tribes and nations that were here before the encounter with Europeans,” Keyes said in an e-mail interview. “We also need to know what happened to these peoples as a result of the encounter and how these tribes and nations continue to be part of our story today.”

In many schools today, history curricula mention cultures very quickly and then move on, Keyes said. American Indians are only mentioned briefly in many of the lessons taught in school, and many of the textbooks in Utah schools today devote only a chapter or two specifically to American Indians before and at the time of the European encounter, Keyes said.

According to the Utah State Office of Education Social Studies Core curriculum handout, the first lesson about American Indians is not until the 4th grade. This is a brief mention of the American Indian settlement on the East Coast during the encounter with the Europeans and some details about American Indians settling in Utah.

As it is very important to educate children in public schools, it is also very important to educate adults about issues that have been taught incorrectly in the past. Forrest Cuch, director of the Division of Indian Affairs, has made it a goal to inform kids and adults about history.

Cuch is a member of the Ute Indian Tribe and was born and raised on the Uintah and Ouray Ute Indian Reservation in northeastern Utah. When Cuch attended elementary school he was taught that American Indians didn’t make any contribution to civilization.

In 1994, Cuch became the social studies department head at Wasatch Academy in Mt. Pleasant, Utah. During this time Cuch developed a multi-cultural program and taught a full load of classes.

Cuch has also developed an “empowerment training” program for members of Indian tribes. This 10-month program taught as many as 30 people at a time about the history of their culture, spiritual, physical and mental health and taught participants how to live a better life for themselves and their children, Cuch said.

“We let them choose by showing a contrast of both worlds,” Cuch said. “After 10 months many of them were empowered to get off welfare and live a better life.”

Cuch hopes in the future these programs can be expanded to include all types of cultures because cultural diversity is what makes the world beautiful today.

Incorporating many cultures into curricula in public schools is important for children to learn about cultural diversity.

Teaching and educating children and young adults will help them understand the issues that American Indians deal with. Society still uses language, images and generalization that reinforce stereotypes associated with minorities, said Keyes, the social studies specialist.

“Over the past decade we have had an explosion of excellent materials for teachers to use,” Keyes said. “At a societal level we can continue to hope that our nation becomes more sensitive to American Indian issues.”

Salt Lake American Indian leader promotes more accurate teaching of history


For an illustrative example of how American Indian culture impacts people every day, look no further than a plate of spaghetti.

Although typically associated with Italian culture, the pasta dish’s roots can actually be traced to America and Asia. Tomatoes, the key ingredient in marinara sauce, were first domesticated by American Indians and later shipped back to Europe, while noodles were originally created by Asian cultures.

The example, though seemingly trivial, is one of several used by Forrest S. Cuch, executive director of the Utah Division of Indian Affairs, to underscore a troubling pattern in popular interpretations of history: the tendency to diminish or, more often, ignore outright American Indians’ role in history.

“When I went to school, [the] message I got: Indians made no contributions to Western culture,” he said in an interview with students in a University of Utah reporting class.

This at least partly explains why American Indian students often feel “written out of history,” said Cuch, 57. His own school experience was marked by conflicts between what he was learning at school and what his parents were telling him at home.

“Right off, I didn’t feel good about school,” he said, citing examples of the incomplete, often inaccurate accounts of history he was taught, including the notion that Pilgrims, not Indians, found the wilderness and learned to survive largely without help.

As part of his lifelong quest to teach a version of history in which American Indians are accorded their proper significance, Cuch gives a PowerPoint presentation when he travels around the state. The slideshow, titled “Did You Know?” provides a broad overview of some of the most prominent American Indian achievements glaringly omitted from school textbooks and curricula including: evidence of writing that pre-dates the earliest known samples from other cultures, their early and advanced organized societies, and the fact that they’ve inhabited the Americas for at least 13,000 years.

But the effort to restore American Indians to their rightful place history is not in any way intended as a judgment on prevailing white or Anglo-American culture. On the contrary, white people have also suffered needlessly as a result of these same misconceptions of history, Cuch said.

“White people who don’t know the facts walk around with huge doses of guilt,” he said. In particular, he referred to the diseases introduced by white colonists that severely decimated American Indian populations, and urged that students “Don’t blame [yourselves] entirely for that – it wasn’t intentional.”

The idea that American Indians are often marginalized in the teaching of history is shared by RaDawn Pack, who teaches second grade at Brockbank Elementary School in Spanish Fork, Utah. What is less clear is what to do to change it.

Compared to when she began teaching 22 years ago, Pack said that currently she may teach even less about American Indians. But she did mention a few activities still taught today that feature American Indian culture.

On “Native American Day,” students rotate between four stations, each headed by one of Brockbank’s four second-grade teachers. At these stations students learn to mash corn, hunt for cranberries, learn about Indian hunting skills and string Froot Loop necklaces.

Students also read “Giving Thanks: A Native American Good Morning Message” by Jake Swamp, a Mohawk Chief. The illustrated book imparts a message of kindness and respect for nature.

And in fourth-grade classes, Brockbank students study Utah history curriculum that focuses on American Indians.

For his part, Cuch, who taught social studies 14 years ago at Wasatch Academy in Mt. Pleasant, Utah, acknowledges there has been an effort to teach more accurate versions of American Indian history. Yet he questions the validity of the historical facts that most Utah children grow up learning.

“Most of the history you’ve received in school is terribly inaccurate,” he said, going so far as to say that as much as 90 percent of what is taught is erroneous.

He called for more education and training at the collegiate level. And, as a member of the Ute Indian Tribe, Cuch has worked with the American West Center to develop his ancestors’ history into curriculum for Utah schools. He is also developing teacher guides on American Indian topics.

“Education is complex and it’s simple,” he said. “There’s no curriculum better than love. You have to teach from the heart with love.”

Utah Division of Indian Affairs seeks more accurate history education


“History is a race between education and catastrophe,” said writer and historian H.G. Wells. 

Forrest Cuch, executive director of the Utah Division of Indian Affairs, has been in the thick of that race for decades, and shows no signs of slowing his pace.

The importance of teaching accurate history is paramount for Cuch, an avid reader who can throw a book recommendation into any conversation.

He is dedicated to education and ensuring correct accounts of history be disseminated. A misinformed public can precipitate the disastrous result of repeating history’s mistakes, so Cuch’s work with the UDIA aims to prevent such a calamity.

“Democracy in this country hinges upon an educated public,” Cuch said.

Cuch’s biggest accomplishment in his career with the UDIA centered around educating the public, one small group at a time.  One hundred people took part in an empowerment training in the years 2002, 2003 and 2005. The training lasted 10 months and aimed to educate minorities in four sections: History, community developments and spirituality, physical health and mental health. 

The training, costing $90,000 to $100,000, became too expensive to continue. Cuch would like to do it again, if the money were available.

But the best place to start education is with children. Unfortunately, Cuch remembers his education to be inaccurate, even about his own people.

He recalls learning the history of his people in the K-12 system, then comparing it to his self-study after he graduated from high school. He found there were two histories, the one his teachers taught him and the one he had been taught by his parents.

“The teacher is an authority figure, so I thought my parents were lying,” Cuch said.

The path to the truth was not an easy one for Cuch.

“It did me trauma,” Cuch said. “Our people were here first. I had that understanding. All the information (taught in school) was painful to me.”

Nola Lodge, director of American Indian Teacher Education at the University of Utah and member of the Oneida Tribe of Wisconsin, says proper history has been neglected and in turn, everyone suffers.

“I think that in general, K-12 Indian history has been inadequate,” Lodge said. “There have been teachers who have tried to provide more information, but that is not the usual.”

This inadequate knowledge has damaged understanding between the American Indian people and their peers.

“At best we may get six to 10 pages in the early years of U.S. history, and then we disappear,” Lodge said. “Furthermore what is taught does not help anyone to understand us. We are depicted as slowing down progress, as savages and ignorant.”

But this lack of understanding from other cultures is coming from the same textbooks and teachers that are instructing American Indian students as well. They, too, suffer.

“For the American Indian, it is important for them to know the real history too.  Most Indians are taught in public schools whether on or near reservations, and they receive the same text and curriculum as non-Indians.” Lodge said.  “Consequently, there is a lack of knowledge and understanding by all.”

Teaching American Indian students in the same setting as their peers is a problematic situation, Cuch also believes.

“Our kids learn differently,” Cuch said. “The Indian world operates on feeling, this one works on intellect. There needs to be a balance.”

Lodge believes focusing on “federal Indian policy and subsequent events is crucial to understanding American Indian history” and is key for obtaining a fuller, more accurate U.S. history.

The big lesson to take from history, Cuch said, is humanity. Sometimes mistakes are made but shouldn’t necessarily be condemned.

Even after learning that American Indians were sometimes unfairly pegged as the “bad guys,” Cuch still resists playing the blame game. He also encourages white people to forgive their ancestors for the actions some took against the American Indians.

“It was just something that happened,” Cuch said. “But don’t blame yourselves entirely.”

Cuch continues to race against calamity with a love of history and education. But he has a trick to beat out his competition: He knows how to get the message out and into public knowledge.

“The best way to teach is out of love,” Cuch said. “Love is the best curriculum.”

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