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Education

A New Workshop Aims To Help Teachers Educate Students On Tribal Nations And Indigenous People

 Students in traditional Native clothing perform the Basket Dance in an auditorium.
Tse'bii'nidzisgai Elementary School Facebook
Students at Tse'bii'nidzisgai Elementary School perform the Basket Dance, a ceremonial blessing and symbolic of the history of the Navajo people.

Even though the U.S. was built on Indigenous land, Cynthia Benally says most Americans know very little about native peoples and their culture today.

She’s Diné, or Navajo, and a professor of teacher education at the University of Utah. She said a lot of the misconceptions, misunderstandings and stereotypes people have — everything from tribal nations don’t manage their money well to native communities no longer exist — stem from a lack of education around Indigenous people.

“I went to a native art festival in Scottsdale, Arizona, and I was talking to one of the artists who is also Diné,” Benally said. “This little girl came up and she's like, ‘What are you speaking?’ And the artist said, ‘We're speaking Navajo, it's an Indian tribe.’ And she's like, ‘Oh, I thought they were all dead.’”

Benally, along with fellow education professor Connor Warner, are spearheading a new workshop this summer aimed at correcting the record.

The 4-week program is for current and future K-12 teachers and will help them develop more culturally respectful and accurate lessons about the country’s Indigenous people. Benally and Warner said demand so far in the workshop has been huge. Registration filled up in hours and was even expanded to accommodate additional interest.

During the four weeks, teachers will learn about the native people that have or had lived on lands they currently teach on, the lives of native people today, the legal status of tribal nations and be given resources to help them continue exploring.

Benally said while there are social studies standards covering Indigenous people, most are cursory and very few explore their lives in the present.

“The vast majority stop at the first Wounded Knee [Massacre in 1890],” agreed Warner, who grew up on the Cheyenne Reservation in Montana. “It's like Native America disappears.”

The resulting lack of knowledge has real world consequences, he said, translating into bad and sometimes illegal policies around tribal government authority that can leave them vulnerable to exploitation.

Warner said people often don’t realize there are 574 federally-recognized, sovereign tribal nations in the country with distinct cultures and rights that predate the federal government.

Yet the confusion between how native authority intersects with that of federal and state governments has resulted in legal standards that limit tribal nations’ ability to prosecute crimes by non-native people and collect taxes from businesses on their lands.

“It all starts with the fact that your fourth grade teacher, who was responsible for teaching you the basics, doesn't really know that there are vibrant sovereign nations right here, right now,” he said. “That's how we see this, like this is big.”

Benally and Warner are also working on a five-course graduate certificate program open to anyone who has interest in or might work with native communities, from policymakers to business owners to journalists.

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