For most young people growing up in California, learning the state’s history in school involves studying the gold rush, the mission system, and the industries that make the state unique, namely agriculture, entertainment, and technology. But young people aren’t taught the full history, or even the true history, of how the land of California was taken and who it was taken from. Legislation signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom in late September seeks to correct the education gap by encouraging school districts to collaborate with local Native tribes to build curricula that teach accurate and culturally sensitive Native history to students.
“California lacks high-quality curriculum materials that highlight the history, culture, and government of local tribes,” Assemblymember James C. Ramos, who authored the legislation, said in a press release. “Although California students are instructed in Native American history, grave concerns remain about how this instruction is developed and offered.”
Advocates hope the legislation will encourage local education officials to form task forces with tribes local to or historically located in the region. Educational leaders and public officials are only beginning to reckon with the false anti-Native narratives baked into American culture that are taught as fact in public schools, and California isn’t the only state to have proposed an adjustment to its curricula. While some states are opting for regional curricula; others, like Oregon, opted to create a statewide curriculum standard. And states like North Dakota have proposed for the first time adding Native and tribal histories to curriculum requirements for kindergarten through high school students.
The end goal of legislation like this isn’t just to speak truth to the systems of power that have attempted to erase Native peoples and tribes from historical record, but to highlight Native survival and continued cultural existence as well. According to the National Congress of American Indians, as of 2018, K-12 curriculum in 27 states don’t mention an individual Native person at all, with 87% of state history standards failing to teach Native history after 1900. Without such lessons, non-Native students are led to believe Native peoples exist only as memory, and Native students are left to struggle with the personal and political consequences of that erasure.
“A lot of children don’t want to be Native because they’re ashamed,” said Michael Negrete, the chairperson of the Shiishongna Tongva Nation of the Corona Band of Gabrielino Indians, located near Ramos’ state district in southern California.
Hiding and reckoning with harmful histories
In late 2021, after a California high school math teacher used an anti-Native racist stereotype to convey a mathematics concept, Assemblymember Ramos and other state officials began working with the Riverside Unified School District to address what harms had been caused and create more equitable education standards. Ramos then invited Negrete and others to sit on a curriculum advisory committee for the development of accurate and culturally sensitive tribal education. Ramos’ bill, the California Indian Education Act, would codify a recommendation for other districts to replicate the task force that Negrete is a part of.
“Now we’re starting to see the truth,” Negrete said. “We have to tell the truth. No more lies.”
Until recently, public schools in California taught a one-sided history of the mission system, a regime by which Spanish colonizers enslaved and acculturated Native peoples into Catholicism and subjected them to abuse. Students are taken to nearby missions and told that Spanish colonizers and Native peoples coexisted and worked together. Some elementary students are even instructed to construct models of missions out of sugar cubes or popsicle sticks.
In reality, the Mission system was a genocide. According to “The Dark, Terrible Secret of California’s Mission” by Elias Castillo, missions “were little more than concentration camps where California’s Indians were beaten, whipped, maimed, burned, tortured and virtually exterminated by the Friars.” Robert Archibald, a scholar who wrote extensively about the mission system in California, wrote in 1978 that the missions contained elements of oppression and subjugation that were akin to slavery in practice
But there’s another issue with how Native history is taught, said Oregon teacher Sarah Anderson—the 13 colonies are thought of as existing prior to the land west of it, and the Native peoples who stewarded western land are thought of as both existing after the establishment of the U.S. and as having presented a barrier to the progress of America.
“A lot of American history is taught facing the West,” Anderson said.
It’s a concept she learned from Oregon professor Leilani Sabzalian (Alutiiq), an assistant professor of Indigenous studies in education and the co-director of the Sapsik’wałá (Teacher) Education Program at the University of Oregon, who helped shape statewide curriculum on Native history and culture.
In 2017, Oregon instituted a statewide overhaul of the way that Native history—and the history of Oregon—is taught. The legislation provides funding and extensive curriculum guidelines for implementing coursework. The state collaborated with the nine federally recognized tribes in Oregon to demonstrate that tribal nations are “filled with beauty, resiliency, determination and strength” and to “validate the inherent power and sovereignty of Indigenous nations.” The legislation is fully funded, which means there’s actual money to shift curriculum, train teachers, and deploy some educators to help others better understand the ways to incorporate new lessons into the classroom.
Anderson said that she learned from Sabzalian that,“[w]hen you teach about Native people, you don’t start in the past. We start in the present.” Now, the first thing students learn in Anderson’s classroom are the names of the nine different federally recognized tribes. Students look at the tribes’ flags and read their mission statements, and Anderson said she hopes to take her students to a tribal museum when COVID-19 restrictions allow for it.
She adds that teachers have been excited to implement the new curriculum and have started to see the world through a different lens.
“It became obvious to them that you can’t teach certain things without teaching Indigenous history as well because they’re so tightly interconnected,” Anderson said.
For example, one eighth grade teacher who led a unit on immigration had not included Indigenous history until the passage of the state law. Only afterward did she realize that she’d been teaching her students about immigration without including treaties with tribal nations, explaining what tribal nationhood meant, and the idea of political nations, Anderson said. That teacher adjusted the curriculum by inviting the head of the Indian Law Program at Lewis and Clark College to talk with her students about the history of federal Indian law in the U.S.
“Without understanding [Native] history, you can’t understand the history of Oregon,” Anderson said. “I think that erasing Indigenous history from American history education makes the narrative a lot simpler [and] a lot easier for people to accept things like the certain myths about America in terms of the exceptional exceptionalism of America.”
Standardizing access across school districts
Not all states that are implementing Native history and culture into public education have the same approach. In North Dakota, legislation implemented in 2021 requires that teachers implement some lessons while offering looser guidelines about the content of those lessons than the Oregon model.
State Rep. Ruth Buffalo, who was born in Mandaree in the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation and is a member of the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara Nation, supported legislation in the 2021 session that would require schools to teach Native history, treaties, and cultures. At the time when she entered office in 2018, only a handful of districts opted to teach Native history, the representative said, with fourth and eighth grade curriculum mandates that students learn about North Dakota history, which can include some tribal history—but that was left to the discretion of the educator.
The pandemic motivated Buffalo to help author legislation to implement a statewide requirement to teach Native American history. At one point in 2020, North Dakota had the highest COVID-19 death rate in the world, and it was difficult for tribes to get the protective equipment and financial support needed to mitigate the outbreak, not to mention that the elderly who contracted the virus were some of the last remaining stewards of cultural touchpoints, like language.
“It was alarming, the lack of compassion for people [to] wear a mask or just be considerate of their neighbors who have preexisting health conditions, which is a large portion of the Native population,” Buffalo said. “I felt it was time to introduce a bill requiring Native American history to be taught because I thought, well, that would help people reach a better understanding of their neighbors, and they would just really have more empathy and compassion for one another.”
The legislation was signed April 23, 2021. By Aug. 1, 2025, Native American history courses will be required for all students, kindergarten through high school, and will be a graduation requirement.
“It’s really important that people understand the true history of these lands and the people that were here prior to colonization,” Buffalo said. “A lot of our creation stories are tied to these lands.”
Ensuring that educational requirements are fulfilled
Even with statewide requirements to teach Native history—including funding to support it—some states are having difficulty implementing curriculum. For instance, Montana updated its constitution in 1972 to include a provision to teach about Native peoples, which the legislature later affirmed with the 1999 Indian Education for All Act. A lawsuit filed in July 2021 asserted that in the previous two years, almost 50% of the $3.5 million in annual funding for Native education has been unaccounted for. Even where funds were accounted for, the two legal organizations representing parents and students, American Civil Liberties Union and Native American Rights Fund (NARF), said that they’re misused—with parents reporting that instructors were reading their students books that celebrated the “miracle” of Thanksgiving; rather than a miracle, the holiday marks a massacre.
The lawsuit was filed against Montana’s Office of Public Instruction, which has tried to dismiss the suit. Melody McCoy, a staff attorney at NARF, said that the “state’s not doing anything to correct that or to address” the lost funds or the inadequate education students have received as it relates to Native history and culture.
The goal of the Indian Education for All Act was to standardize the curriculum for students at Montana’s 825 public schools within 402 school districts. Years later, McCoy said there’s still “no consistency.”
“Some students are getting nothing, [and] certainly no public school student in Montana is getting the full benefit of the laws from K through 12,” McCoy said.
The recent change to Native cultural and history education in California may push other states to follow, as well as demonstrate why the standard curriculum is so needed in the first place. Education creates a worldview and a sense of self, as experts, parents, and community leaders said. So until the time comes where this education is standardized, all students, and especially Native students, must wait to see how legislative fights play out.