Truth In Utah's History Of First Nations Peoples

The writer is Indigenous Day Award recipient Phillip B Gottfredson, the author of My Journey to Understand Black Hawk's Mission of Peace.

Throughout my two decades long research into the history of First Nations in Utah, I have repeatedly encountered disheartening narratives shared by members of the LDS church, perpetuating harmful stereotypes and placing blame on Native communities. The refrain echoes, "We have given the Indians every opportunity to succeed, yet they choose a life of dependency on government support, succumbing to addiction, poverty, and despair. It's their own fault." This assertion couldn't be further from the truth.

Throughout history, it has been an undeniable fact that settler colonialism forced Native Americans to choose between giving up their culture and assimilating into the dominant white culture. The consequences of such assimilation efforts have caused irreversible damage. When educators exclude Native American history from the curriculum, Native American students are left feeling marginalized, overlooked, and alienated within their communities.

Quoting from the Salt Lake Tribune article by Lisa Shencker November 25, 2009: For many people of color, education - far from being a tool for uplift - was a bludgeon, designed to strip culture, difference, language from non-white children and to "civilize" them with the master narrative of U.S. history. For Native people, this calculated cultural genocide was done with force, as Native children were taken from their families and sent to government boarding schools designed to "Kill the Indian, Save the Man."

For about 100 years, ending formally in the 1930s but continuing until the '70s, Native boarding schools used coercion and often abuse to force children to lose their connection to their languages, cultural traditions and families. As an elder, Lone Wolf, Blackfeet, recalled in the 1890s, "School wasn't for me when I was a kid. I tried three of them and they were all bad. The first time was when I was about 8 years old. The soldiers came and rounded up as many of the Blackfeet children as they could. The government decided that we were to get the White Man's education by force.

"It was very cold that day when we were loaded into the wagons. None of us wanted to go and our parents didn't want to let us go. Oh, we cried for this was the first time we were to be separated from our parents. Nobody waved as the wagons, escorted by the soldiers, took us toward the school at Fort Shaw. Once (we got to the boarding school) our belongings were taken from us, even the little medicine bags our mothers had given to us to protect us from harm. Everything was placed in a heap and set afire.

"Next was the long hair, the pride of all the Indians. The boys, one by one, would break down and cry when they saw their braids thrown on the floor. All of the buckskin clothes had to go and we had to put on the clothes of the White Man. I remember one evening when we were all lined up in a room and one of the boys said something in Indian to another boy. The man in charge caught him by the shirt and threw him across the room. Later we found out that his collar bone was broken. The boy's father, an old warrior, came to the school. He told the instructor that among his people, children were never punished by striking them."

Is it any surprise, then, that with the legacy of this oppressive system, Native students continue to be at the greatest risk of dropping out of school? The 2001 McDowell Report on Alaska Native and Native education says, "American Indian and Alaska Native students are considered the most at-risk for failing to complete high school and college. Whatever the reasons for leaving school, dropout rates are symptomatic of the failure of an educational system that refuses to accept cultural differences as a strength rather than a weakness."

"These kids are living in Utah, and they need to know the whole story," said Elizabeth Player, curriculum coordinator for the Utah Indian Curriculum Project at the American Advertisement West Center at the University of Utah. "If we miss out on the first people in our state and their current status, we're missing a huge piece of that puzzle as to who we are as Utahns."


"Too often, museums and other institutions portray Indians as they do the dinosaurs, like we're dead and gone," said Forrest Cuch, former director of the state Division of Indian Affairs. "But we're not." 


"I feel like I can finally do it justice," said Quinn Rollins, a seventh-grade teacher at Bennion Junior High in Taylorsville."


Tiana Tollestrup, an eighth-grader at Crescent View Middle School in Sandy, said she's eager to learn more about her own heritage and American Indian historical figures.

We learn about other backgrounds and a lot about how they lived and their history," Tollestrup said. "I think it would be great if we learned about ours."

Damon Pitts, a senior at Jordan High in Sandy, said he thinks it might give American Indian students a reason to do better in school. He said what he's learned as part of his school's Standing Tall program, which mentors American Indian students, has already helped him.
"It gave me a boost to do better, to know that someone cares," Pitts said.


Utah failing to educate Indian kids, report says
By Stephen Speckman
Deseret Morning News (Friday, September 19, 2003)

Utah is lagging behind several other states in its efforts to educate American Indians, according to a report from the Utah American Indian/Alaska Native Education State Plan Advisory Committee. The advisory committee's study concluded that Utah is behind Idaho, New Mexico, Arizona, California, Montana and Minnesota, which have all mandated that their education systems change their social studies core curriculum and counseling programs.


"Indian people are still suffering from and have not healed from the North American conquest, nor the violent struggle to settle Utah, predominantly by members of the LDS Mormon faith." In order to educate Utah's American Indian children, it's important for those youths to understand their past, "begin to heal" and start believing in themselves, according to the report.


Another finding is that Utah's tribal communities continue to blame failed economic and educational systems on or near reservations for many problems within tribes. But the plan says the blame game between schools, American Indian parents and their children needs to stop.

"We have learned that for American Indians in the state of Utah," the plan says, "social dysfunctions are real and have a major impact on education and what happens in schools." Among possible solutions, it says some tribes, which have their own sovereign rights, are willing to enter into agreements with the government to clarify expectations between the state, tribes and school districts.


The report goes on to say a lack of "accurate and culturally relevant curriculum" perpetuates stereotypes and contributes to low self-esteem among Indian students. Administrators, counselors and teachers, the group said, should have to demonstrate cultural competency related to American Indians as a graduation requirement.


Native Education - By Naomi Isshisaka

"The only chance of saving any of this race, will be by taking their children, at a very early age, and educating them in our habits, in a situation removed from the contagion of Indian pursuits." - William Tudor in Letters on the Eastern States, 1821

"How smooth must be the language of the whites, when they can make right
look like wrong, and wrong like right." - Black Hawk, Sauk, 1800s

Over the course of U.S. history, one of the most intransigent battles in the fight for equality and justice for people of color has been in access to quality, culturally relevant education.

To Educators:

Educators should avoid manipulative phases and wording such as "massacre," "victory," and "conquest" which distort facts and history.

Teach Native American history as a regular part of American History and discuss what went wrong or right.

Avoid materials and texts which illustrate Native American heroes as only those who helped Europeans and Euro-Americans, i.e. Thanksgiving.

Use materials and texts which outline the continuity of Native American societies from past to present.

Use materials which show respect and understanding of the sophistication and complexities of Native American societies. Understand and impart that the spiritual beliefs of Native American Peoples are integral to the structure of our societies and are not "superstitions" or "heathen."

Invite a Native American guest speaker/presenter to your class or for a school assembly. Contact a local Native American organization or your library for a list of these resources. Offer an honorarium or gift to those who visit your school.

Avoid the assumption that a Native American person knows everything about all Native Americans.

Use materials which show the value Native American Peoples place on our elders, children, and women. Avoid offensive terms such as "papoose", and "squaw." Use respectful language.

Understand that not all Native American Peoples have "Indian" surnames, but familiar European and Hispanic names as well.

Help children understand Native American Peoples have a wide variety of physical features, attributes, and value as do people of ALL cultures and races.

Most of all, teach children about Native Americans in a manner that you would like used to depict YOUR culture and racial/ethnic origin.

See: Native American Protocols We have added this page to help educators and people who are beginning relationships with Native American people.