By Antonio Ray Harvey, California Black Media
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond and Assemblymember James C. Ramos (D-Highland) want Californians to have a better understanding of the history and culture of California’s Native American people.
At the State Capitol last week, Thurmond joined Ramos, the only Native American serving in the Legislature as the lawmaker announced that he will introduce a bill encouraging school districts to collaborate with local tribes to increase knowledge about California Native Americans in their communities.
Ramos, who is the first American Indian ever to be elected to the Legislature, cited a similar effort being made in Washington State.
“When Washington state revamped its Native American curriculum, it began by initiating a relationship between the tribes and schools. Its state’s curriculum, entitled ‘Since Time Immemorial,’ has made a positive difference for students. We can’t reverse 171 years of falsehood and mythology overnight, but we can start,” Ramos said.
Thurmond said he is excited about the initiative and honored to be working along with Ramos to integrate Native American studies into California public education.
“We have the opportunity right now to counter the actions of those who continue to teach harmful and stereotypical messages and create an environment where all students learn about and benefit from the rich history and culture of California’s first People,” said Thurmond.
Ramos said a deeper understanding of Native American people and their sovereignty would help to get rid of enduring racist stereotypes and misperceptions stuck in the imaginations of some Californians.
Last fall, a teacher in the Riverside Unified School District (RUSD) in Southern California was placed on leave after a student shared a video of her mocking Native Americans while teaching math to students.
In the video, which was shared many times across the internet, the teacher was wearing a headdress made of paper feathers while explaining a math assignment. The student who captured the moment identifies as Native American.
“So few people understand the diversity of California’s first people,” Ramos stated. “They speak different languages, use different musical instruments, practice different customs and traditions. Few know many tribes were wiped out or almost eliminated during the 1800s.”
More than 40,000 students are enrolled in RUSD schools. About 80% of the district’s students identify as Black, Latino or another ethnic minority, and 46% of them are
economically disadvantaged, according to U.S News and World Report.
“These behaviors are completely unacceptable and an offensive depiction of the vast and expansive Native American cultures and practices,” the school district said in a statement. “We are deeply committed to implementing inclusive practices and policies that honor the rich diversity of our district and the greater region. We will be working with our students, families, staff, and community to regain your trust”
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, over 630,000 people identify as American Indian and Alaska Native in California.
In combination with another race, the number of Native Americans increases to about 1.4 million people. Altogether, they make up 3.6% of all Californians, as compared to 1.9% ten years ago, the 2020 census reported.
Ramos said the legislation he plans to introduce will be the first step toward increasing student knowledge about the indigenous tribes residing in the state.
“We are fine-tuning language in the bill and will introduce it soon,” said Ramos. “If we don’t do a better job at encouraging our schools and tribes to work together, we’ll see more classroom episodes such as the one we saw last October.”