Monthly Archives: August 2014

Teaching The Truth

What we teach our children matters

What we teach our children matters

I guess most everywhere now children are back in school and, as teachers, it’s time to reflect on what we are teaching. It’s particularly important when the topic is history. Recently, the online magazine, Indian Country Today Media Network, published an article by Christina Rose titled, “10 Things Teachers Should Never Do When Teaching Native Kids.” Since most teachers don’t know whether or not they are teaching Native children, I would suggest the ten things pertain to ALL CHILDREN.

To rehash her points here is counterproductive, if you can’t find the article, email me and I will send it to you. Having said that, it is important to talk about a few of the mistakes which frequently occur during first semesters. You know, that’s the time of year we celebrate Columbus Day, Thanksgiving, and Native American Heritage Month. Of course, these errors don’t just happen in school. They happen everywhere untrained educators try to explain American Indian history and culture.

If you are lucky enough to have Native children in your class, and know it, Ms. Rose’s first point is appropriate. Never ask your Native child to speak for their Race. Being singled out in class could be embarrassing for the student, but it is also important to remember that there are 562 federally recognized tribes in the United States and all have different beliefs and cultures. It is unlikely one child could speak for all of them.

If you know the students tribal affiliation, and you have received permission from the parents, and the child is willing, it would be okay for him or her to speak about that tribes culture. The Virginia Department of Education did an excellent job of using a ten year old boy to speak about his tribal customs and the existence of other tribes in the state.

Another of Ms. Rose’s issues was, Don’t have students choose Indian names for themselves. This might seem like a harmless activity and an excellent way to explain the naming process, but it is an extremely personal ceremony performed by a person chosen by the child’s parents. A Menominee parent from Wisconsin, Ritchie Plass, after hearing from his daughter that she had been asked to choose a Native name, wrote a poignant letter to the teacher and school board about the ceremony. The letter is part of the article and should be read.

In short, if you don’t understand American Indian history and culture, don’t opt for stereotypes. Contact someone who can help. In states with tribes, call the tribal information office and ask if they could provide a speaker. In Georgia, contact the Georgia Council on American Indian Concerns. Google them or email me and I will give you an email address.

A few years ago, James Loewen wrote a book, Lies My Teacher Told Me. It is not on my recommended list because it involves much more than American Indian history, but I highly suggest every parent and teacher read it. Remember, Thanksgiving didn’t happen the way it is taught in our schools, and Christopher Columbus didn’t discover America. Don’t compound the problem. Do the right thing, Teach the Truth.

Who Is Indian And Who Decides?

Wilma Mankiller

So far in this series, we’ve discussed Native American origin theories and the proper way to address them. Today we’ll look at who is an Indian, and who has the right to make that determination. The question almost seems silly, but that’s far from the truth. As you can see by the quote on the picture above, the late Wilma Mankiller, former Principal Chief of the Cherokee, thinks an Indian is an Indian. An individual should know, right? Not in America.

In an attempt to unravel “Indianness,” we need to go back before the European invasion, when most tribes traced their heritage through women. This practice is called matrilineal lineage. It didn’t matter who the father was, your membership into the tribe came through your mother. Whether she bore a child naturally or adopted one, that child was a tribal member. For example, John Ross, Principal Chief of the Cherokee during the failed battle for their land in Georgia, was only 1/8th Cherokee by today’s blood count. His mother, who married a European, was one quarter Cherokee because her father was a Scotsman, and her mother was one half Cherokee because her father was European as well. To the tribe, though, he was Cherokee because of the mother’s kinship lines.

Another example is Quanah Parker, last Chief of the Comanche. His mother, Cynthia Ann Parker, was a white girl captured by the Comanche from her father’s ranch in Texas. She was adopted into the tribe and married Peta Nocona. Because she was adopted by a Comanche woman, she was considered Comanche, as was her son. No Native ever spoke in terms of blood quantum until the Europeans (Americans) got involved.

How did it become so confusing that today there are multiple law suits challenging tribal affiliation? That’s a very long story and can be covered another time, but it stems from our intent to “Americanize” Indians. The two main characters in this story are Alice Fletcher, an anthropologist, and Henry L. Dawes, a Senator. Both were ardent supporters of American Indians and were committed to improving their lot in the mid-19th century.

Fletcher worked with the Omaha Tribe and misinterpreted a conversation with one of the Chiefs who indicated he wanted to go back home. He meant return to the way things were, and she believed he was asking for a “home.” She became convinced the answer to the Indian problem was to turn them into farmers so that they could share in the American society.

Her idea caught on in Washington, and Senator Dawes became the father of the Allotment Act which passed in 1887. The Act provided that every member of various tribes would be allotted a certain amount of land in his name and the implements necessary to farm. We’ll talk much more on the impact of the Act later, but suffice it to say, it required tribes to list their membership. The resulting “Dawes Rolls,” became the definitive answer as to whether or not someone is Indian. It didn’t matter that many tribal members didn’t list themselves, or that many errors were made in recording the list, it became the rule.

Since then, of course, most tribes have created their own governments and constitutions and all have set up the standards by which one can be considered a member. Today, one must apply to the tribe and be vetted by the membership committee for acceptance. It is also possible for a tribe to dis-enroll someone if it believes that person does not meet all the criteria. If you do become a member, you are awarded a membership card, a blood quantum card, which states your percentage.

So, I’m sorry, Miss Mankiller, today, you can’t be an Indian unless you can prove it by having a card. In fact, those with Native American heritage who do not have cards refer to themselves as “undocumented.”