Earlier this month, a public school student in Utah County created a presentation on Navajo code talkers for a class assignment, as a way of recognizing National Native American Heritage Month.
As the student attempted to give her presentation, she was stopped by her teacher.
“A Utah educator actually … right out said, ‘That never happened. I just can’t validate that that event ever happened. You have to redo your research,’” said Meredith Lam, a member of the Diné tribe, also known as the Navajo tribe.
When Lam, the Provo City School District’s Title VI director, heard about the incident, she was stunned.
“We’re in 2019 — how can you not know about Navajo code talkers?” she said. “And coming from a state where we’ve had Navajo code talkers living in our state, it was a bit shocking.”
Naturally, making sure similar incidents don’t happen again amongst Provo schools is a heightened task during the month of November.
Thanksgiving ‘tales and fables’
“I call them tales and fables, because they are,” Lam said of the historically incorrect accounts of the first Thanksgiving often told in and out and schools. “The mainstream society perspective of history has not always been correct. We’ve gotta hear both sides of the story.”
Lam and Brian Yazzie, the district’s diversity and equity coordinator, are leading a push to “decolonize curriculum,” especially in history class.
“We’re trying to break the old traditions of those tales and fables about Thanksgiving, and this new curriculum gives teachers a better perspective about what really happened from the indigenous perspective,” Lam said.
Yazzie, a member of the Navajo and Hopi tribes, said he can remember being taught about Indians and pilgrims and the first Thanksgiving dinner in school as a child.
“And how it was portrayed was really not accurate,” he said. “The story was told improperly.”
The school district’s revamped curriculum, among other efforts the Title XI office is making, are in place to “make sure we’re being culturally sensitive, to make sure we we’re also teaching all of our students the proper perspective of what these holidays are or these celebrations are about or even the people itself, that we’re not stereotyping,” Yazzie said.
Lam explained that Native Americans’ relationship with Thanksgiving can be both good and bad, and can be different between the hundreds of federally-recognized tribes across the country.
For some Native Americans, like the Wampanoag tribe, Thanksgiving is a time of mourning, as many Natives recognize the time marks mass genocide, diseases and being forced out of their homelands, she said.
“But as a whole, we recognize what our ancestors did for us. We recognize the sacrifices, the resiliency to stay alive for future generations,” Lam said. “There is so much to be thankful for, there really is.”
Yazzie said that while there is a sense of mourning, overall he sees his fellow Native Americans celebrating during this time of the year.
“That’s what this particular month is now, I think it’s a celebration of our people, our ancestors who made many sacrifices,” he said.
Lam, Yazzie, and UVU’s Native American Initiative program director Ken Sekaquaptewa, each brought up the tradition of having students cut out paper feathers and create headdresses, buck fringe and other things in mimicry of Native American culture when teaching Thanksgiving-themed lessons.
“It’s hard for Native people sometimes to see their stereotypes in elementary school,” Sekaquaptewa said. “There are things that are sacred in Native culture that shouldn’t be depicted in that way. Headdresses are sacred. People sometimes think they can take things from culture and make them for themselves, and it’s a matter of education and knowing what’s appropriate and what’s not appropriate.”
Sekaquaptewa, of the Hopi tribe, said this avoidance of stereotyping should be kept in mind not just during Thanksgiving but with Native things in everyday culture.
“We’re not people’s costumes,” he said. “We’re a culture, and there should be respect of cultural traditions.”
Avoiding Native stereotypes
“I think a lot of it is people just need to take the time to learn, to try to take opportunities of special events that may happen,” Yazzie said, adding that in Utah County, there are several Native American public events throughout the year, especially in November. “I think that if people would take the time to really learn about the cultures of not only Native Americans but just people in general, I think that would help. And that includes all people … it’s really critical for us to take the time to educate and not go on assumptions.”
Lam also suggested that the community can help their Native American neighbors by trying to learn, both by researching and attending events.
“We just had an Indigenous Celebration Day back in October, and we had an amazing turnout, and the community was able to kind of step inside and see what the indigenous community is striving for,” Lam said.
Sekaquaptewa said his department makes frequent efforts to partner with community groups to educate people about Native American history and culture, which helps to overcome stereotypes.
“Historically, I think in many situations, we come across people who think that Native people don’t exist anymore, and it’s all due to the lack of teaching Indian history in the schools,” Sekaquaptewa said. “History books are written by the people who won the battles, and so it’s from a perspective that’s a non-Indian perspective. So we try to let people know that there’s another side of the story.”
“It’s all about educating each other and learning from each other and celebrating each other. It makes us better people,” Yazzie said.
Breaking boundaries in Native education
Provo City School District and Nebo School District both reached 100% graduation rates last school year, thanks to the efforts made by Title XI departments. Lam said when she first started in Provo’s department several years ago, she remembers the graduation rate for Native American students was around 50%.
“I think what we’re doing here in the state of Utah has been breakthrough,” Lam said.
The Provo City School District was nationally recognized for its Title XI work at the National Indian Education conference in October. Lam and Yazzie were invited to present their K-12 curriculum development and system of supporting teachers to help adjust to the changes.
“The whole movement now in education, especially Indian education, is decolonizing our curriculum, making sure that the indigenous voice is being heard, and that perspective is being presented,” Lam said.
Another effort Yazzie said the district is making is forming advisory committees to represent each group of families of color.
“To have their perspectives is really important for us to make sure we’re doing all we can,” he said. “Myself, as a Native American, I can definitely tell you the perspective of a Native American. But I can’t tell you what it’s like to be an African American. I don’t understand that. That’s why these committees are really important to us as a district, to get their perspective.
The pioneering effort they’re making puts Utah in a great light, Lam said.
“Could we do better with Indian affairs? Yes, most definitely,” Lam said. “We’re not perfect. We still have a long way to go. But I love that this district has embodied and really fostered that breakthrough, and I think it’s something we should be really proud of as a community.”
Native Americans in the community
American Indians and Alaskan Natives make up only 0.5% of Utah County’s population, according to the 2018 Utah County Community Assessment. But even with their small numbers, Yazzie said Native families contribute greatly to the community.
“They (Native Americans) are very passionate, very caring people. They love their children. They love their families,” he said. “They bring the joy of life, they definitely bring a sense of community, because it’s definitely important in our culture to support one another, to care for one another, to look out for each other.”
Yazzie said many Native families in Utah County are very willing to share their culture with others, but they also want to be respected as fellow people making up the area’s community.
“I think that’s important, that we’re not just a figure,” he said. “We are people, we are a vital part of the community, and we do have important attributes to the community.”
Lam said community is at the heart of Native American culture.
“I feel like we have the best group of Native community members here in Utah,” she said. “They shed light. Diversity is such an asset in the community.”
It goes both ways, Lam said: Native Americans have a lot to offer the community, but they are also grateful for support from the community.
“I will always be grateful for that support,” she said. “It’s hard to be a pioneer, it’s hard to be the first. But it also takes courage, and it’s brave, and I think that those our all words of all our Native community here: brave, courageous and very loving, very inclusive and accepting.”
Sekaquaptewa said he has felt a great support from UVU and the community in his position.
“We try to let people know that Indians are still here today, we are a living and thriving culture, we have worthwhile things to contribute and share with the mainstream community,” he said.
Preserving Native American culture
Lam said a big part of the Title XI initiative in Provo City School district revolves around helping students to be able to “share their culture and be able to preserve traditions” and to “be able to express their cultural identity in an academic setting.”
Urban Native Americans do not have natural day-to-day exposure with their group at large, as opposed to Native Americans who live on a reservation, Lam explained, making it even more vital to preserve that culture in schools.
“They’re not being supported in their cultural identity, or with knowing their history or their language, which is vital and very important and the whole point of Indian education grants like Title XI,” Lam said. “We recognize, and the U.S. Department of Education recognizes, that sustaining that identity, that cultural identity, is pivotal and very important to their development in educational settings and success.”
Lam believes this effort in K-12 fosters a Native American cultural identity throughout the rest of the students’ adult lives.
“We don’t’ want them coming to school feeling like they have to shed who they are when they walk through the school doors,” she said. “We want them to be proud of being American Indians and to be proud of who they are, and to make sure they hold onto that, because they don’t have to change. That makes them beautiful, that makes them them, so we want to support and cultivate that.”