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Williams: The politics of ignorance in our schools

I learned a new word the other day. Agnotology is the study of the politics of ignorance. This unusual word is even more intriguing when one considers that politics can influence ignorance. I never realized that ignorance could be politicized and that there are academicians studying the effects.

As I thought about the concept, it occurred to me that perhaps politics, specifically federal Indian policy, have also significantly influenced ignorance in America. Policies such as assimilation dramatically affected every American Indian in this country while the federal government was promoting the concept as a positive way to solve the “Indian problem” in America. And in turn, assimilation meant that non-Indians have remained ignorant about the truth behind assimilation policy, as well as about American Indians in general.

I never realized that ignorance could be politicized and that there are academicians studying the effects.




In 1892, American Indian children who were removed from their homes and families and sent to boarding schools, where they were subjected to the policies of Captain Richard Pratt, who declared that “civilizing” and educating children meant it was necessary to “kill the Indian, and save the man.” This policy was destructive to the well-being of every American Indian in America, yet at the time people in America applauded the action and believed that destroying the culture, religion, language and ways of Native people was the best thing that could happen to the first Americans. By keeping non-Indians ignorant about the intent of that policy and how it affected families – destroying American Indians’ way of life because it symbolically represented resistance to civilization – people embraced the policy.

The ideology behind that policy lives on. Even today I encounter people who ask, “When are you people going to get over being Indian and become Americans?” The politics of ignorance can be a vicious educational tool. Simply put, people are taught that governmental policy is always in the best interest of the people, and unfortunately, as a result, most people believe what the government tells them.

The level of ignorance among average Americans about American Indians is almost unbelievable. Most Europeans are more knowledgeable about American Indians as they are encouraged to study the fate of the indigenous people of North America.

American schools only briefly (if at all) include American Indians in the curriculum, and if so, this is done in the fourth grade. Time is spent learning that Indians lived in tipis and liked to dance. Usually there is the required making of a headdress out of paper, usually around Thanksgiving, while avoiding the real story of Thanksgiving – which is the devastation that the colonists brought to the country in the form of disease which had annihilated many nations on the eastern seaboard by that time. This practice is offensive and demonstrates a high level of ignorance about Indian history.

Even today I encounter people who ask, “When are you people going to get over being Indian and become Americans?”

In order to come to terms with one’s history, one must confront it, and to do so, one must be educated about it. Avoiding it or painting a different picture than what really happened does not allow for healing – or rebuilding. An example of a nation that has had to grapple with a dark history is modern Germany. The country has had to confront the horrors of the Holocaust to rebuild its political institutions and search for ways to prevent history from repeating itself. Rather than avoiding the topic, German schools teach about the Nazi dictatorship and the Holocaust at schools, and the topic is not limited to a niche in the history syllabus like the “The Battle of Little Bighorn.” The topic is incorporated across a broad spectrum of subjects at different times, including civics, current affairs, religion, ethics and literature to allow German students to confront their ancestors’ guilt and help them appreciate institutions that protect freedom and democracy while reinforcing appreciation for diversity.

The same can and should be done in America to confront our dark past when it comes to Indian policy. The Montana legislature has led the way in America when it passed the Indian Education for All Act in 1999. The law goes a long way in attempting to eradicate ignorance about American Indians. It recognizes the distinct and unique cultural heritage of American Indians and is committed in its educational goals to the preservation of their cultural heritage. The law also encourages every Montanan to learn about the distinct and unique heritage of American Indians in a culturally responsive manner; mandates that every educational agency and all educational personnel work with Montana tribes or tribes nearby when providing instruction or implementing an educational goal or adopting a rule related to the education of each Montana citizen to include information specific to the cultural heritage and contemporary contributions of American Indians, emphasizing Montana Indian tribal groups and governments. The law also stresses that all school personnel should have an understanding and awareness of Indian tribes to help them relate effectively with Indian students and parents and to gain an understanding of and appreciation for the American Indian people.

The Montana legislature has led the way in America when it passed the Indian Education for All Act in 1999.




The average American’s abecedarian knowledge of American Indians perpetuates popular myths about American Indians, without recognizing how the nation’s Indian policy resulted in a holocaust of its own. It is time for the nation to face its past and heal, while giving American Indians their rightful – and truthful – place in our nation’s history. I urge every state to pass legislation similar to Montana’s so that all of our children are educated about how American Indians were treated in the past and the true role indigenous people have played and continue to play in our nation.

Richard B. Williams is the president and CEO of the American Indian College Fund, the nation’s largest provider of private scholarships for American Indian students seeking to better their lives and communities through a college education at the nation’s 33 accredited tribal colleges and universities.