As teachers, we hope our students’ parents will care passionately about and be involved in their children’s education. This, however, was different. This was dangerous and violent and irrational.
The faces were horrifying—blood-engorged with the bulging, unseeing eyes of madness, spittle flying from the gaped mouths twisted with purple rage. It looked more Dante than Danville, but was, in fact, Virginia. Incited by a well-coordinated campaign from the American right, these parents had come to their local school board meeting inspired to take whatever steps were necessary to protect their children from the latest boogeyman: critical race theory (CRT).
Eventually, one man was arrested, a second was held by authorities, and the board was forced to clear the meeting of all spectators. In addition to all this bad behavior, there was one massive problem with the angry gathering: Critical Race Theory is not being taught in Virginia’s K-12 schools.
Unfortunately, Virginia is hardly the only state suffering from this panic over Critical Race Theory. Spurred on by FOX “News” and a myriad of right-wing influence groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council, states across America have begun proposing and passing legislation to curb what kinds of information can and cannot be taught in America’s history classes.
Three of the states that were carved out of land from the Cherokee Nation are among those making such proposals. Tennessee legislators want to restrict what kind of information students can learn; North Carolina has HB 324, which would “prohibit teachers from promoting concepts that suggest America is racist or that people are inherently racist or sexist”; in Georgia, state representative Brad Thomas told his constituents, “I’m proud to tell you we’ve started writing that [Critical Race Theory] bill,” and acknowledged borrowing “language from Tennessee’s bill.” Thomas represents, apparently without irony, Cherokee County.
Which brings me to my concern: What do all these bills mean for the teaching and studying of Native American history? It must be said from the outset, of course, that American Indian history is not an unremitting litany of loss and tragedy.
There is the genius of Sequoyah, the courage of Louis Sockalexis, the heroism of Ira Hayes. It is inevitable, though, that a people victimized by colonialism will have stories of betrayal and that the antagonists of those stories will, in fact, be the colonizers. North Carolina’s bill bars educators from teaching that “the United States was created by members of a particular race or sex for the purpose of oppressing members of another race or sex.”
Fair enough; perhaps the United States was not created “for the purpose of oppressing another race,” but there can be no reasonable argument against the idea that the United States was created through the oppression of other races: first, through the theft of the lands and the enslavement of the continent’s indigenous peoples and, second, through the enslavement of Africans. I doubt North Carolina’s legislators would note or honor the difference, though, and that has me re-examining my own classes.
I teach three courses on the history of the Cherokee Nation and the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians to students at Cherokee High School on the Qualla Boundary in North Carolina, and while the stories of Charles George, Osley Saunooke and others provide inspiration and instill pride, it is simply impossible to discuss or teach Cherokee history without touching on the “divisive concepts” such as racism and sexism that these states are attempting to stifle.
If I am not allowed to discuss sexism, how can I teach my students about the centuries-long war against their matrilineal culture?
Both the Cherokee Nation and the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians have elected female heads of state (Wilma Mankiller and Joyce Dugan, respectively), while America has not; how do I discuss this fact without reference to sexism? How can I teach my students about their ancestors who returned home from making the rest of the world “safe for democracy” only to be denied the right to vote by county poll workers in Bryson City if I cannot discuss racism?
Genocide seems like a reasonably “divisive” topic, so I can only assume I am not allowed to discuss removal and the thousands of Cherokee deaths in the 1830s, or the Indian Health Service’s systematic sterilization of “perhaps 25 percent of Native American women of childbearing age” in the 1970s and 1980s.
If I am no longer allowed to confront uncomfortable truths with my students, how will we discuss the Cherokee Training School, a boarding school that once existed on the boundary, or the nearly-forgotten mass grave of the children who were sent there and died in the 1918 flu epidemic?
If neither racism or sexism can be discussed, how do we talk about the tragic crisis in our communities of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women? In order to assure the comfort of white children, must I dishonor the memory of Native children?
Mark Robinson certainly thinks so. Though Robinson was only elected to the office of Lieutenant Governor of North Carolina, he has named himself Grand Inquisitor as well. To make certain that no North Carolina student is made even slightly uncomfortable by historical fact, Robinson recently launched his FACTS task force—Fairness, Accountability, in the Classroom for Teachers and Students.
Robinson created a website for students, parents, or presumably even other educators, to report teachers who stray into the uncomfortable topics of racism, sexism, classism, or any other topic that does not sing the praises of American exceptionalism.
Did the lesson on the Trail upset a white student? Turn the teacher in. Did the discussion of Doublehead and his battle against the theft of his ancestral homeland cause a white child to feel guilty? The teacher can be ratted out to Lieutenant Governor Torquemada. Do the words of early missionary educators such as John Gambold and Cyrus Kingsbury embarrass North Carolina’s white students? FACTS will be there to ensure those words are, like the broken bodies of the Cherokee children buried in the Brainerd or Springplace mission cemeteries, forever buried.
Recent studies show that America’s teachers already feel woefully unprepared to teach history—both the positive and the negative stories—with only one in five “feeling very well prepared to support students’ civic learning.” Add to this the threats from those who, like Mark Robinson, are determined to hide any and all of this nation’s sins, and you have a perfect storm where the history of Native Americans and of Indian Country vanishes like an Orwellian fantasy.
The American Indian College Fund reminds us of the devastation this can bring when noting, “invisibility is in essence the modern form of racism used against Native Americans. It is this invisibility that leads to a college access and completion crisis among Native American students.” Educators—particularly those working in Indian Country—must stand fast against this tide of censorship and creeping fascism.
Oklahoma’s Republican governor, Kevin Stitt, had the clueless audacity to sign a bill banning “teaching certain concepts of race and racism” while just 90 minutes down the road, in Tulsa, researchers searched for the bodies of slaughtered Black Oklahomans from the Tulsa Race Massacre. Oklahoma educators have noted the chilling effect the bill has already had for higher education in the state.
For the Cherokee (as well as the other Native nations within the state’s border), the idea of teaching Oklahoma history without reference to race, racism, or colonialism is laughable. Oklahoma only exists due to racism; if not for racism and colonialism there would be no Governor Stitt at all, just the combined leadership of the Principal Chiefs of the myriad Indigenous nations located in Indian Territory. Hiding historical trauma will not heal it; it will only deepen and prolong its impact.
On my desk sits a small cake of lye soap. It is there to serve as a daily reminder of my sacred responsibilities and moral obligations as a teacher. It is there because of the story my grandfather, Russell D. Norris, told me about the time in third grade in Cramerton, North Carolina, when his teacher washed his mouth out with lye because he had spoken a single word of his Cherokee language while in class.
If, next school year, one of my students asks me about the soap, may I tell her the story? If I do, will I be reported—turned in—to my state government? Will I lose my job for sharing my Grandpa’s story? Will Lieutenant Governor Charrington be alerted to my transgression? It doesn’t matter, of course. I will teach the truth.
I will teach Cherokee history—the good, the bad, and the ugly—come what may. I will do this because my voice is all I have in the fight to make certain that no Cherokee student will ever again face the abuse my grandfather faced. Teachers must not be silenced, and teachers in Indian Country must demand the right to teach the absolute and unvarnished facts about the relationship between the United States and the Indigenous nations trapped within her borders.
Native American educators and educators of Native American students must let our governments know that if they come for one, they must come for all. We must make our motto the words attributed to Dragging Canoe. We must “run all risks, and incur all consequences, rather than submit.”