Advocates say Native American culture too often ignored in education

Print More

There are more than 5.2 million people who identify as Native American, Alaska Native or a combination of both, in the U.S., according to a U.S. Census Bureau survey.

But some Michigan State University students and faculty members say those groups aren’t represented well in school curriculums.

“I think when the perspective and values of Native Americans are not taught, sometimes this can give the idea that those considered ‘white’ are most important,” said Olivia Porth, a sophomore at Michigan State University studying physiology.

Porth is 25 percent Native American, and she said she learned about her heritage mostly from her grandmother. Porth’s grandmother is part of the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community and has lived on the L’Anse Indian Reservation in the Upper Peninsula for almost her entire life.

According to the census, there are 139,095 people in Michigan who identify as Native American, Alaska Native or a combination. About 68,500 people lived on Michigan Indian reservations, trust lands and tribal statistical areas in 2000, according to census data.

“Especially here in Michigan where there has been so much tribal history as well as the present conditions for the many tribes in our state, I felt that by leaving this out of the curriculum it leaves out a structural piece of statehood,” said Kathryn Petersen, a student at Michigan State University studying political science.

Telaina Eriksen, an assistant professor in the Department of English at Michigan State University, points to several examples of how the lives of Native Americans aren’t accurately represented in American culture. Most celebrations Columbus Day, the federal holiday that celebrates the arrival of Spanish explorer Christopher Columbus to North America, fail to recognize the impact of European explorers on Native Americans, she said.

She said most American’s don’t understand how Native American tribes are governed or their daily lives. She points to controversy of the North Dakota Access Pipeline as an example. Construction of the pipeline set off protests led in part of Native Americans, who attempted to block the pipeline from being built on reservation land. Most Americans didn’t have any idea what was going on or that Native Americans have sovereign right over reservation lands, she said. School curriculum, too, doesn’t tell the whole story.

“Some states are developing curriculums that ‘white wash’ what colonialism did to indigenous peoples, as well downplaying slavery,” Eriksen said.

While growing up in Michigan, Paula Valacak said she wasn’t unaware of the state’s Native American history. She said she became more aware when she came to MSU and met a more diverse group of people.

“I recall learning about Native American history in elementary and middle school, it dealt more with the interaction between the Native Americans and the settlers from Europe, instead of on the culture and history of the people,” Valacak said.