I always knew that I was Navajo. As a child, I called myself “Native American” or “Indian.” By the time that I started school, my family moved to the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area where I was distanced from my people. My Maryland schooling, like most educational systems, failed to teach Native American history and culture adequately.
I was reminded of my isolation from my relatives when I heard my dad talking on the phone in Navajo with his siblings. In Navajo tradition, aunts, uncles and grandparents fill a special role in teaching children about their identity, but because I was disconnected, these individuals did not play an active role in my early rearing. As a doctor, my father worked many hard hours, and he did not teach me much what it was to be Navajo. I made naïve mistakes. In play, I would say that I was “Pocahontas, an Indian princess.” I had seen the Disney film by then, and like the protagonist, I imagined throwing myself off a plunging waterfall. To me, this was what it meant to be Native American, and my schooling reinforced these stereotypes.
My dad did not completely fail in teaching me my identity. In my classes, I raised my voice and shared my background to my teachers, and because I was always the only Native American in my classes, they invited my father to present in November for Native American Heritage Month. He shared items that my family kept at home, such as a headdress, powwow regalia, Navajo rugs and pottery. He used these items to teach my classmates about various Native American peoples and cultures, visiting my classes every November through high school.
He would sometimes sing Navajo songs to the drum, but I never understood the words he uttered. He wore a ribbon shirt, work clothes or a dress suit. I would sit in the circle of students listening to my dad with pride, because he was my father, a real living Native American.
Aside from my dad’s presentations, I learned that “Indians” wore “buckskin” jackets, which we made out of paper bags. I remember coloring pictures of “friendly Indians” who welcomed the Pilgrims to the “New World” during the first Thanksgiving. According to a recent study published in Theory and Research in Social Education, 87% of K-12 curriculum materials show pre-1900 imagery of Native Americans — frozen in time.
Because my school included so many diverse cultures, my fellow students often identified themselves by their backgrounds. In my tech ed class, a circle of students introduced themselves to one another — “Where are you from? What are you? I’m Mexican. I’m French …” They went around saying “what they were.” Then, it was my turn. I said, “I’m Native American.” A white student mocked me, “You mean Indians who dance naked around a fire and live in teepees?” I was shocked, but contemplating on the images that my schools shared about Native Americans, I now realize that his reaction should have been expected.
A few weeks ago, my daughter brought home a coloring sheet of “Indian children” showing a little girl with two braids, wearing a buckskin dress. My daughter attends school in Tahlequah, the home of the headquarters of two Cherokee nations, the Cherokee Nation and the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians. Like her, many of her peers are Native American. Most teachers are not qualified to teach about Native Americans, and they do not have a curriculum that supports the proper learning of Native American history. Our schools continue to misrepresent Native Americans in front of our very eyes. Rather than recognizing us as living sovereign peoples, they continue to teach that we are relics of the past.
Farina King, Ph.D., a citizen of the Navajo Nation, is an assistant professor of history and an affiliate of Cherokee and indigenous studies at Northeastern State University.