SACRAMENTO, Calif. — On the steps of the California State Capitol, the state’s first and only California Native American serving in the state’s legislature stood with colleagues urging for a change in the way Native American history is taught in school districts statewide.
"This is just the beginning of a long process, and we're not going to sit back and take no for an answer," Assemblymember James Ramos said. "We're going to keep moving pieces of legislation with strong support with strong allies till we get the curriculum changed for factual information."
Ramos was not alone in his motivation and awareness that there needs to be a change in the way Native American history is taught in school. Two members from the Latino Legislative Caucus — Assemblymember Robert Rivas and Assemblymember Cristina Garcia — also took the podium pulling from their personal experiences in the school system.
"I know that I learned virtually nothing about our tribal history or about the present as I grew up in this state," Rivas said. "And the result (of Native history not being taught in classrooms) is that bigotry, stereotypes and most of all, a lack of knowledge, colors many Californians' perception of our Native peoples today. And the only cure for ignorance is education."
"I was a classroom teacher for 13 years, and I know firsthand that a lot of students don't realize our nation's history. California has a vibrant and thriving Native American community that's been here from the beginning." Assemblymember Garcia said. "It should not be surprising that so many students don't know the rich culture and history of our Native American brothers and sisters. When the reality is that there's less training and resources in many states, including here in California, and a lot of our standards don't mention how to teach the Native American history."
How Native American history is taught in Sacramento
Currently, there is some Native American history taught around the kindergarten level around Thanksgiving in the Sacramento Unified School District. But things don't pick up until around the fourth and fifth grade level. That's according to Christina P.C. Narvaez, youth services specialist for the Sacramento City Unified School District.
"So that's kind of where I think students normally would get some history," she said.
Narvaez works specifically in the American Indian Education department of the district. She added that in 2016 the districted started the implementation of making ethnic studies a requirement for graduation.
"So our district — which I think is very commendable and exciting —has been kind of doing this work for some time now," she said. "They work with a lot of local people… to get some of the history and accurate history of Native peoples specifically to California (taught)."
SCUSD has an American Indian Education Program. Through the program, students who are enrolled members of an American Indian Tribe or Alaska Native Group, or who's parents are, are eligible for a number of services — including cultural events and programs.
Another program being done through the district — that is open to not just Native American students — is a project that has tribal educators contracted by the district visit the classroom.
At the teacher's request, the tribal educator comes into the classroom and educates students on a number of different topics surrounding Native American history and culture.
"So that's been a pretty awesome project that we worked on," Narvaez said. "And the teachers have been very receptive."
Here are similar Native American programs in the region by district:
In October 2021, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed AB 101 into law requiring California high school students to take ethnic studies to graduate, starting with the class of 2030.
"How many people in the state of California know that militias that went out and killed Indian people was actually paid for by takes taxpayers money?" Assemblymember Ramos said. "That's something that needs to be in the history books as something that needs to be taught."
Why this issue matters
Calvin Hedrick, Mountain Maidu and lead organizer for California Native Vote Project, was on the State Capitol steps Wednesday along with Assemblymember Ramos and other law makers. There he stressed the importance of teaching “correct history” in schools.
“So many of our students are suffering trauma from a miseducation really,” Hedrick said. “Education that wasn't there or so many things being left out.”
He pointed to the way the mission system is taught in schools, and how history paints it as a time that was “fruitful" to Native American people.
“But when we realized that all we need to do is look at what was written at that time from that perspective, and we see that it was not a good time,” Hedrick said. “And this was a very brutal time for Native people.”
He went on to reflect that schools need to start teaching the “true” history to students at a young age, all while acknowledging that Native people, not just in California, are still here.
“We're only remembered as, you know, a logo on the side of a football helmet or a Disney character, when realistically we're living right down the street. We're living in all these communities (and) we’re thriving,” Hedrick said. “We're not just, you know, a gaming establishment. We are human beings who continue to try to continue our culture.”
Assemblymember Ramos is expected in the coming days to introduce legislation encouraging school districts to collaborate with local tribes to start teaching students about the California Native Americans in their communities.
Ramos added the inspiration for the upcoming bill stems off of the momentum seen in Washington State with its “Since Time Immemorial” state curriculum.
According to the Washington Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction website:
In 2015, the Legislature passed Senate Bill 5433 modifying the original 2005 legislation, now requiring the Since Time Immemorial: Tribal Sovereignty in Washington State or other tribally-developed curriculum be taught in all schools. The use of the Since Time Immemorial curriculum has been endorsed by all 29 federally recognized tribes.
Through the curriculum, kids from all learning levels — early learning to high school — are taught tribal history in conjunction with existing grade level curriculum.
"I think a big driving force for our people, for our native youth and for myself is always remembering that it's not about us," Ramos said. "Our voice that we're carrying here today is those ancestors, those that those atrocities and genocide were inflicted upon, those voices are being, now, heard."