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.”

The Native American ESL student


Teachers and PTA members at West Jordan Elementary School in West Jordan, Utah, have combined their efforts to create the “I Can Read” program, a program designed for students who need help with reading and writing skills.

Cody Black is one student who has received the one-on-one help he needs to enhance his reading and writing skills. Stacy Murdock, Cody’s 4th-grade teacher, noticed he was struggling with his reading and writing assignments. He had a harder time in some areas because his parents, who are Native American, do not speak English well enough to help him at home.

Murdock entered Cody in the “I Can Read” program to help him improve his literacy skills. “I know that if he were to just get some help with his reading and writing, it will help him a lot in other subjects,” Murdock said before enrolling Cody in the program.

After his sessions in the “I Can Read” program, Cody often mentioned how helpful it was for him to be able to read with someone, something he couldn’t do at home with his parents.

Professors Nancy S. Lay and Gladys Carro explained in their article, “The English-as-a-Second-Language Student,” how students who struggle in reading and writing can struggle in other areas as well. “Many of the textbooks are written on a reading level far higher than that attained by many ESL students,” they wrote. “Thus, reading becomes slower and checking the dictionary for every word they do not know takes time and interrupts the comprehensibility of the texts.” For this reason it is important for schools to provide additional help for students who are behind in reading and writing.

Native American students going to school where their culture is not the dominant one can also have trouble adjusting to the culture of other students, making it harder to learn or feel comfortable.

Culturally, Native American children learn differently than white children, said Forrest S. Cuch, executive director of the Utah Division of Indian Affairs.

“Most Native American children learn to concentrate on the spiritual aspects of life. Most white children are taught to concentrate on the physical aspects,” Cuch said. In addition, he said, “Native Americans are taught to be cooperative, whereas whites are taught to be competitive.”

Similar to the way cultures are different from one country to another, Native American cultures are different from other cultures within the United States. Lay and Carro suggest that if an ESL student does not participate in some activities in class, it may be because of a cultural difference that is making the student uncomfortable.

“American Indians are different in so many ways, and we process information differently,” Cuch said. “And the school system is designed for the dominant culture. And consequently, our kids have always fallen behind.” To help Native American students feel more comfortable, Cuch suggests that schools implement a system of smaller classrooms, hire more Native American teachers and incorporate Native American history into the curriculum.

Cuch did agree that when there are a very small number of Native American students in a school it is often best to give that student more one-on-one help with specific needs. Most Utah elementary schools have some form of reading and writing program like “I Can Read” to help struggling students in a more personal way.

Although Cody was helped by the “I Can Read” program, those who helped him were only volunteers and not professional teachers. Cody is now in the resource program at West Jordan Elementary and is getting better one-on-one help from professional teachers who have been trained to help students with special needs.

According to the November 2004 United States Census Bureau, only 75 percent of Native Americans and Alaska Natives age 25 and older had at least a high school diploma. This is the lowest rate among all races and ethnicities in the U.S. If more is done to help Native American students at an early age, it is more likely they will further their education and learning.

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.”

A Utahn’s search for culture, history and education


“If you don’t have a command of history you are vulnerable,” said Forrest Cuch, who has been the executive director of the Utah Division of Indian Affairs since 1997. As director he works to enhance intergovernmental relationships throughout Utah. His experiences at the Division, coupled with his history as an educator, have made him successful. As a graduate of Westminster College he went on to teach social studies and become the education director of the Ute Tribe.

Growing up, Cuch was faced with trauma of an intellectual nature. While at home his parents told him about his culture and his people but at school he was taught that Native Americans didn’t contribute to civilization. Unsure of whom to believe, he had mixed feelings about school.

The contradictory information he received as a child is what drove him to challenge what kids are learning. Cuch believes that there is a need for reform and change and teachers should be taught to change social norms. “Cultural diversity makes the wonderful life we have today,” he said.

“The best way to teach is out of the heart,” he said. He believes that to provide great education to children, parents need to entrust their education with the right people. Cuch said it is important to find people who love children. Employing individuals who will nourish and foster children is essential. In addition, he believes paying teachers a decent salary is vital and suggests looking for new and alternative ways to teach and hook kids.

The biggest accomplishment and what he is most proud of is the empowerment training he helped develop. He trained more than 90 individuals from tribes and urban areas. The training focused on four main sections. The first was reteaching history. Cuch emphasized the importance of not believing everything one is taught; reteaching and relearning is key. Secondly, community develop was highlighted.

Physical and mental health were the last two components of the training. Before white settlers came to the Americas, Native Americans had never been exposed to alcohol and sugar, Cuch said. These elements were treated like toxins to their bodies and contributed to the setbacks that many Native Americans have faced.

The University of Utah is currently reviewing the program and Cuch hopes to receive more funding to continue his work. So far, the training has been held three different times: in 2002, 2003 and again in 2005. The main message he hopes people will take from the training is that education really is the key for success in business, personal and health aspects.

Bly Miller, a Park City resident and former teacher, is a member of the Iroquois tribe. Miller remembers the lessons her mother and grandmother taught her about the importance of knowing her culture and history. “They were always telling me about the struggles of our people and how no matter what they kept going. Knowing your history is vital because we are our history, our ancestors,” she said.

Miller has worked closely with the Iroquois tribe, educating its young on everything from tradition to basic life skills. She feels that her purpose in life is to teach and pass on what she has learned from her family. “If I can offer my knowledge to these children than I have done my part as a citizen of the world,” Miller said.

Cuch’s passion for education comes from the hardships he faced in school. While in high school he was exposed to the pain that came with the “white” version of history. Once he was in college he began to explore and learn the truth about his people and started his work with Native Americans. The result of this educational journey is the humanity he spreads through his work as a Ute and citizen. “History is not in the past,” he said, “it is now.”

Tribal leader training in SLC provides growth, opportunity


One man has high hopes for the education of Native American people, and 90 tribal leaders from across the U.S. have supported his life changing efforts.

His name is Forrest Cuch.

The program? Empowerment training.

And no, Cuch didn’t always see life the way he sees it now. As an enrolled member of the Ute Indian Tribe and executive director of the Utah Division of Indian Affairs since 1997, he had to wade through years of his own fears and insecurities before he could help others tackle their own.

“We had a way of life that was good, but when I started hearing about Pilgrims the information was painful to me,” he says. “‘Oh, what about the Indians?'” he asked. “I didn’t feel good about school.”

Cuch admits he didn’t trust what he’d been taught by his parents and says he was confused about his heritage.

“Had the American Indians made no progress to society”? Did his people really kill those in wagon trains “without any provocation”? Were there historical inaccuracies that he should know about?

“I had to learn about my “own humanity,” he says, “my good side as well as my bad. My people enslaved [others]. I learned from that.”

Cuch also learned from a man named Mack Gift Ph.D., a non-Native American professor who taught him at Westminster College where he graduated in 1973 with a bachelor’s degree in behavioral science.

Twenty-nine years later, after Cuch had gained experience in Native American directing, planning and administration involving various endeavors, as well as becoming a department head and teacher in the social studies department at Wasatch Academy in Mt. Pleasant, Utah, Cuch and Gift came together once again.

The rest may even be history.

About 30 tribal leaders from across the country were invited to attend that first empowerment training in 2002 at the Embassy Suites Hotel in downtown Salt Lake City. Among other things, the experiential and lecture oriented training instructed Native American tribal leaders in history, community development, spirituality, government, business and physical and mental health.

The curriculum borrows from the Minnesota Model of “training and empowering disabled people under the National Governor’s Council for the Disabled program,” Cuch says. Passive/aggressive behavior as well as eye contact is a part of the agenda that helps to educate tribal leaders to improve their lives.

And the medium has proved a success.

Thirty tribal leaders were invited and spent one weekend a month for 10 months at the same location the following year. In 2005, 30 additional tribal leaders from various Native American tribes were selected, making a total of approximately 90 tribal leaders who would finish the program.

“There was no preaching,” Cuch says. The leaders were shown how to make a better life by contrast and by choice. Though education was given, it was up to the tribal leader to take it in and live it, he says.

“It was a respite for people, a respite for excellent learning,” Gift adds in a phone interview. “Each of the tribes learned to go beyond tribal identity. They found a commonality.”

Not surprisingly, with the training of tribal leaders came growth for others.

“Tribal leaders have shared it with other people,” Gift says.” It is a great program, but we are trying to get funding to go through it again.”

Currently, the Institute for Social Research at the University of Utah is evaluating Cuch’s program, which he said costs an average of $100,000 per training or about $3,300 per participant.

The research group was “pretty impressed with the program” Gift says. He has high hopes that, in time, the training will expand. Once it’s been established annually for Native American tribal leaders, Gift would like to involve as many Native Americans as possible.

“When we hear, ‘we’re ready to live now, we see clearly now,’ that makes us feel good,” Cuch says, speaking of the empowerment program his division provides. “We must use every medium possible, and it’s a very challenging thing to do. [But] the future hinges on the quality of education for all people.”