As social media went wild on Saturday, I wondered: What message had the Covington Catholic High School students been given about Native Americans before their encounter with Nathan Phillips?
More broadly, I wondered about the place of America’s indigenous peoples in secondary education. I teach at a Catholic university across the river from Covington, Ky. Last December I introduced undergraduates to Native America via an episode of MTV’s “Rebel Music” series, and a presentation of my dissertation research. I had spent several years on a mission to listen respectfully to what Native Americans were telling white, Christian America. The act of listening was uncomfortable at best, and a long, stinging rebuke at worst.
My students encountered Native American scholars and activists like Vine Deloria Jr. and Dennis Banks, learned of the American Indian Movement and met a comedy troupe called The 1491s. I explained what happened at Wounded Knee in 1890 and showed the infamous photos of dead Native Americans left frozen and contorted in the snow. I read a grim account of discovering the jawbone of a Native American toddler who had “not yet shed its milk teeth,” left in the aftermath of the 1865 Sand Creek massacre.
A handful in any classroom will know any Native American history at all, and others are surprised to find out what they “knew” was inaccurate.
Putting Native American peoples and their history before students elicits self-admitted ignorance. A handful in any classroom will know any Native American history at all, and others are surprised to find out what they “knew” was inaccurate. The students have not failed. We educators have failed them. In last semester’s course, I think part of the students’ sadness came with realizing that they understood almost nothing about something important.
My research revealed one statement repeated by almost every indigenous voice I encountered: “No one is listening to us!” Similarly, half a century ago, the Native American writer Vine Deloria Jr. titled a long essay “We Talk, You Listen.” Winona LaDuke offered a 2017 op-ed saying she is tired of being ignored and invisible to “you all,” the “we all” being white Americans. Too often, Native Americans are known to people only as stereotypes—mascots with feathers, frozen in time. We act as if they “vanished” when they are very alive and present.
Native Americans are known as stereotypes—mascots with feathers, frozen in time. We act as if they “vanished” when they are very alive and present.
It should not be my place to speak about what Native Americans are saying, when what they themselves are saying is so rarely attended to. But that is the point. I am an outsider to tribal communities, yet I seem to be among the few who have listened long enough to feel uneasy as a beneficiary of their loss.
And I am a Catholic educator. I am feeling deeply this week the failure of American education—public, private and religious—to teach young citizens-in-the-making the full, problematic history of their own nation. Our students are too rarely confronted with the inconceivable suffering of African slaves and the unconscionable attempted genocide of the peoples who populated the Americas. The invisibility of Native America in education tells our students that indigenous people do not matter.
The social doctrine of the Catholic Church, distilled from papal encyclicals that began responding to social injustices during the industrial revolution, calls for every human being to be treated with dignity. It teaches solidarity with our struggling neighbors, the need to see ourselves as one human family. This teaching is part of any Catholic education.
Last weekend’s incident in Washington is a call for a corrective in education. How much did the young men from Covington High know about indigenous people? Probably very little. But we must teach an honest American history, not merely one provided by history’s “winners.”
The absence of indigenous peoples demonstrates that their criticisms are correct. Our unexamined sense of superiority finds them unimportant.
We are guilty to the extent that we dismiss the unpleasant, condemning truth, and fail to turn from it. We are guilty to the extent that we choose to cling to a comfortable place of privilege while the wreckage of conquest lies, barely dusted over, around us. Educators, from administrators to classroom teachers, need to examine the absence of the American Indian in their American schools, and correct it.
And, mostly, we need to hear what the indigenous have to teach us.