Fred Kowal: When It comes To Native Americans, Be Historically Complete

May 5, 2016

The Treasury Department’s recent announcement to put Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill drew a quick response from Donald Trump, who called it unbridled “political correctness.”

Unfortunately, that phrase is often used to avoid the need for us as a nation to be Historically Complete. It’s best when the United States, like all nations, is honest about its history, accepting praise for what we’ve done to improve life for all and admitting our faults and failings.

Academic disciplines such as Native American Studies—which has been my privilege to teach at SUNY Cobleskill—are also attacked as examples of what Trump calls “political correctness” out of control. He couldn’t be more wrong.

In my 15-plus years in the classroom, I’ve been constantly amazed at how appreciative students are to hear our nation’s history from the perspective of the original peoples of this continent. Students find the complexity and diversity of their backstories enlightening, deepening their appreciation for North America’s rich history.

They also hear about the cultural genocide perpetrated against native peoples by our nation during its first 200 years. It’s not an easy thing to read about, discuss or absorb. Though students understand that we are not responsible for our ancestors’ actions, they recognize that those acts have deeply scarred native peoples across the U.S. and Canada.

This legacy is, in part, responsible for the incredibly high suicide rates among young native people in the U.S. and Canada. An extensive study by the Center for Disease Control found that 40% of natives who commit suicide are between the ages of 15 and 24. Our native children are destroying themselves.

The tiny Northern Ontario First Nation of Attawapiskat declared a state of emergency on April 9 after 11 residents attempted suicide—one of them as young as 10. Since September 2015, there have been over 100 attempted suicides here. And in California, the Yurok Tribal Council declared a state of emergency in December after a surge in suicides.

Most Americans are unaware of attempts by our government and churches to destroy native cultures through a repressive system of boarding schools, whose heyday was from roughly 1870 until 1970. Children as young as 4 were taken from their families and forced to cut their hair short. Their native clothing and religious objects were destroyed, and they were physically punished for speaking their languages. Generations were lost to the violence of alcohol abuse and suicide as a result of this cultural genocide.

The Canadian government officially apologized for its actions and the resultant violence in native communities caused by boarding schools. And the government budgeted funds to address the impacts of the schools. The US government has not apologized, nor has it acknowledged the need for funding in areas like mental health and law enforcement to protect women and children from the epidemic of violence perpetrated against natives on and off reservations.

Our ancestors created conditions that were horribly destructive to native societies. It is a central role for education to teach our children about these actions, and how the world we live in—and the challenges we face—came to be.

By making our education and our dialog about our history and present circumstances historically complete, we are open to an honest and comprehensive debate about our nation’s future. As an educator, I have always believed this is a sacred obligation for all teachers. It is one I will never abandon because of false accusations concerning political correctness.

It’s time for honesty and justice in our nation. 

Dr. Fred Kowal is President of the 35,000 member United University Professions, which represents faculty on 29 New York State Campuses. UUP is an affiliate of NYSUT, The American Federation of Teachers, The National Education Association and the AFL-CIO.  

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