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Census prompts push for more Indigenous school lessons

Tim Henderson, on

Published in News & Features

“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, branch chief of the U.S. Census Bureau’s Ethnicity and Ancestry Statistics Branch.

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.”


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