How the Critical Race War Theory Affects Native Americans
Discourse on race in America often takes on a sort of black-white dichotomy, and the panic over “critical race theory” is no different. We’ve seen images of angry white parents at protests, demanding a ban on CRT instruction — in all grades, from kindergarten to middle school. We’ve seen bans on teaching Martin Luther King’s writing or reading books about Ruby Bridges, basically any discussion of historical or current racism.
Yet we must not overlook how this fabricated moral panic affects Native American communities. Many laws passed by GOP-led state legislatures include language that has a direct effect on Indigenous teachings, colonization, Western expansion, Indigenous sovereignty and more. Rebecca Nagle, Cherokee writer, activist and host of the This earth podcast, said the CRT panic is just the latest version of an old backlash.
“I feel like the fear of the story being told more accurately has been there for a long time,” Nagle said, citing backlash against things like The New York Times‘ Project 1619, removal of Confederate statues or efforts to recognize Indigenous Peoples Day instead of Columbus Day. “For a long time in the United States, there has been a reluctance to tell our full story – the good and the bad.”
Part of the reason the panic about CRT matters so much is that the term has been turned into a catch-all nebula, encompassing anything to do with diversity, inclusion, ethnic studies and of a range of race-related topics that makes parents uncomfortable. This happened for other terms, like “awakened”, for example. If these concerned parents have been initiated into the panic by the conservative and right-wing media, they may well be both terrified of the CRT and unable to explain precisely what it is.
“I think what’s happening across the country is that people generally misunderstand what critical race theory is,” said Elizabeth Rule, assistant professor of critical race studies, the Gender and Culture at American University and a registered member of the Chickasaw Nation. “Many people mistakenly view it as a teaching that blames individuals, and others fear that it is a tool to create division between communities.”
Nagle argued that concern and moral outrage over students’ feelings in school environments seems very selective. As an example, she cited research that shows the detrimental effects that Indigenous-themed mascots have on Indigenous communities, especially youth. Rule explained how the general lack of understanding of Indigenous history and culture affects these communities.
“There is a significant portion of our population that fundamentally lacks an understanding of who the Indigenous people are in this country,” Rule said. “There is a belief among some that Native Americans are all dead and gone. I’ve had people who didn’t know that Native Americans still exist today. (Nagle had similar experiences, recounting a time when a wife said, ‘I thought we killed you all?’) this lack of understanding,” Rule added.
With states placing broad limits on how educators across the country can teach accurate American history, these laws and bans will only serve to serve as a chilling effect in schools and classrooms across Indian Country.
“You see this severe lack of inclusion with Indigenous people at all levels,” says Nagle. “You can go to law school and not know about tribal sovereignty or what a federally recognized tribe is. You can learn about the three branches of government when it comes to civics, but most Americans don’t know what a tribe is and what it means legally.
Maggie Blackhawk, a member of the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Ojibwe and a professor of constitutional law and federal Indian law at New York University, echoed Nagle. Blackhawk said these laws and prohibitions will only add to the feelings of exclusion, marginalization and erasure that many Native Americans already experience when enrolling in the American education system.
“It doesn’t take a law to erase Indigenous history from most classrooms – it’s not there already,” Blackhawk said. “Instead, public schools taught for many, many years a Thanksgiving story that was fabricated in the late 19th century. In Oklahoma, schools held land grab exercises in which students claimed land, which was a form of deep dispossession and breaking treaty promises. So it’s even stranger to prohibit by law something that is not in the program.
Blackhawk suggested that because of Indigenous sovereignty, there is a small subset of Indigenous students and teachers who will be less affected – those who teach and attend schools run by tribal governments. But about 90 percent of Native American students attend regular public schools.
What makes the moral panic over CRT so exhausting is that it exacerbates the racial inequities and educational divisions it purportedly aims to eliminate. It fosters a cynical understanding of what children, especially white children, are ready to learn.
When a young person discovers his country, he inevitably goes through a form of cognitive dissonance, reconciling the good and bad facts of history. Especially for African American and Native American students, it is nearly impossible to learn American history and not question it. Black and Indigenous children must sit in classrooms across the country where they are taught “both sides” of slavery and the Civil War, or to value Christopher Columbus. When your ancestors were enslaved or dispossessed, your relationship to these facts is much more complicated – and this dissonance is not so easily resolved by American exceptionalism or a patriotic agenda. In many ways, opponents of critical race theory use universalist language to specifically protect white children from the issues that black, indigenous, and other children have historically faced.
“Because of who Native and African American children are, they have to learn to accept their country, even with its flaws,” Blackhawk said. “It’s something I teach in my Constitutional Law course with Frederick Douglas saying that the Constitution is an anti-slavery document. It can be both in a nation state that disregards its humanity during much of his life and then take this country and this founding document and embrace it for himself.
Blackhawk, like Nagle and Rule, thinks the panic over the CRT is a manufactured diversion. But each of these scholars, writers and activists also sees the fear sparked by the CRT as a battle in a larger political and cultural war – a war in which, once again, Indigenous communities have been caught without much say. to say.