Editor’s note: This story was updated to correct Roberto Ramirez’s title.
Many American Indians and Alaska Natives say the dramatic increase in their numbers recorded in last year’s census supports their longstanding argument that Indigenous history should get more attention in public school classrooms.
Even before the latest tally, there was a growing movement to infuse more Indigenous material into school curriculums—not only to connect students to their roots, but also to ensure that all students know about the contributions of Indigenous peoples and to encourage respect for the sovereign rights of tribes.
Tribes also hope that the addition of millions of people counted as American Indian or Alaska Native in last year’s census will translate into a larger share of public money, such as the $4.8 billion the federal government allocated last year for tribal coronavirus pandemic relief. The federal government based that amount on earlier, lower estimates of the country’s Indigenous population.
Some states, including Oklahoma, Oregon, Washington and Wisconsin, already have taken steps to make Indigenous history and culture a larger part of classroom learning. Now politicians and advocates in other states are doing the same: Connecticut and North Dakota enacted laws this year requiring Indigenous history lessons, while California has pending legislation on the issue.
The census count of American Indians and Alaska Natives grew by almost 4.5 million to 9.7 million between 2010 and 2020, an increase the U.S. Census Bureau credits to better questions in 2020 that helped tease out the heritage of multiracial people.
The higher numbers will help boost Indigenous political clout, said Sarah White, lead facilitator for the South Dakota Education Equity Coalition, which is working with local Sioux tribes to boost Indigenous content in school curriculums. She suggested that even the higher numbers in the 2020 census reflect an undercount of American Indians and Alaska Natives, given the challenges of counting during the pandemic.
“Whatever our population, morally and ethically speaking, we are the original inhabitants of this land that is now considered South Dakota, and that should be enough for our inclusion,” White said.
However, the push to increase schools’ emphasis on Indigenous history and culture has run into political headwinds in South Dakota. Members of a working group charged with crafting new social studies standards say the administration of Republican Gov. Kristi Noem deleted many references to Native Americans, including historical lore and lessons on the meaning of symbols such as star quilts, buffalo and medicine wheels.
Montana often is cited as a pioneer in ensuring that public school students learn about Indigenous history and culture. In 1972, it enshrined that principle in its state constitution, which now declares that Montana “recognizes the distinct and unique cultural heritage of the American Indians and is committed in its educational goals to the preservation of their cultural integrity.”
In July, though, the ACLU of Montana and the Native American Rights Fund filed a lawsuit claiming the state has not met its legal obligations and that “Indian and non-Indian Montanans are not learning about American Indian heritage in a culturally responsive manner.”
Many state legislatures have been debating what students should learn about the nation's tortured racial history. A Texas law enacted in June required teaching about Native Americans in public schools, but another law enacted after a special session in September removed that requirement. Both measures were included in laws aimed at critical race theory, a decades-old vein of scholarship that seeks to examine how government policies, laws and court decisions can perpetuate racism. Although they have struggled to cite evidence that K-12 schools are teaching critical race theory, Republican lawmakers in many states have used it as a catch-all term in their efforts to curb discussion of race and racism in schools.
To many, the dramatic increase in the number of people identifying asin the census count is a sign that more people want to learn about their Indigenous backgrounds and how to take pride in them, said Aaron Payment, chairperson of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians, based in Michigan.
“There’s been so much pressure to assimilate that a lot of people have genericized their identity,” said Payment, who also worked on a national committee to implement Indigenous education provisions of the 2015 federal Every Child Succeeds Act, which gave state and local governments more control over teaching priorities.
“In Michigan, we’re lucky to have close ties between the schools and tribes so children can learn about the local Woodlands tribes instead of some Southwest tribes in a standard national curriculum,” Payment said. “We need this information out there to instill some more confidence and self-esteem in our children.”
In Oklahoma, schools in recent years have shown “a whole new level of respect and engagement” for the 39 tribes in the state, holding monthly meetings between school districts and tribal leaders about education, said Joy Hofmeister, state superintendent of public instruction.
Oklahoma students are learning more about the Trail of Tears, the forced march of Cherokee, Creek, Choctaw, Chickasaw and Seminole tribes out of their ancestral lands to Indian Territory in present-day Oklahoma.
Most recently, Oklahoma schools are now offering tribal languages as an option for graduation requirements and acquiring more information on tribal affiliation from the state’s estimated 150,000 Indigenous students, the nation’s highest number, Hofmeister said.
“This is so important for the preservation of those languages,” said Hofmeister, a long-time Republican who has announced plans to run for governor as a Democrat.
Nine tribes in Oregon lobbied for more public school material on Indigenous history, resulting in a 2017 state law mandating lessons on, for example, Indigenous views of Lewis and Clark’s explorations charting lands west of the Mississippi River in the early 1800s.
Such lessons had to be cut back but did not stop during the pandemic’s virtual learning phase, said Oregon’s state Indian education coordinator, Brent Dale Spencer.
“With limited screen time, districts were forced to focus on core content areas,” Spencer said, adding that the state will soon survey schools on how to continue tribal lessons.
Wisconsin Democratic Gov. Tony Evers is a former state schools superintendent who pushed for Indigenous history in schools and recently apologized for the state’s role in Native American boarding schools. Many such schools are under investigation nationally as more reports come to light about historical abuses of students in the name of assimilation.
A 2019 review of state efforts at Native education by the National Congress of American Indians, an association of tribal governments, found that most states are working to include more material on Indigenous people in the curriculum for K-12 students, but many stop short of requiring it in local school districts. As a result, schools still tolerate ignorance of the rights of tribal nations and allow “invisibility, stereotypes and misinformation” about tribes to flourish, the report said.
For the first time, the 2020 census questionnaire had suggestions for write-in responses to the American Indian category including Mayan and Aztec, backgrounds shared by many immigrants from Mexico and Central America, along with U.S.-based tribes such as the Navajo Nation and Blackfeet Tribe. As a result, “a larger proportion of the Hispanic population is not reporting that they’re racially White,” said Roberto Ramirez, the U.S. Census Bureau’s Assistant Division Chief of Special Population Statistics.
Pedro Mateo Pedro, a linguistics expert at the University of Maryland and a native speaker of Q’anjob’al, a Mayan language of Guatemala, agreed that the census change encouraged many Hispanics to report Indigenous roots.
“Usually, questions about being an Indigenous person are general and vague,” he said. The specific mention of Mayans and Aztecs makes it clearer that the term Native Americans “applies to all Indigenous nations in the continents of North and South America, not just the United States or Canada.”
Hispanics citing their Indigenous roots accounted for 1.8 million of the increase, with most of the rest, about 2.2 million, coming from people who reported a mixed White and Indigenous heritage.
“Many people with mixed backgrounds are not aware of their specific identity,” said Payment, who has a White father and an Indigenous mother. “I was lucky that my mother’s family, especially my grandmother, made sure I Iearned about myself.
“I welcome the diversity,” Payment said. “As a people we’re happiest when we recognize our cultural origins and our tribal roots. We’re all descended from Indigenous people, even if it’s Indigenous people in Europe.”