VA Department of Education Renounces Labeling Native Americans as ‘America’s First Immigrants’

Dr. Aaron Winston, a member of the Pamunkey Tribe, was one of the community members who spoke to the Virginia Board of Education on November 17. “We are not immigrants,” he told council members. (Picture: YouTube)

The Virginia Department of Education is apologizing for a published draft of its history and social studies standards that refers to the area’s Native American ancestors as “America’s earliest immigrants.”

The proposed standards, which were submitted last Friday by Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin’s administration, also require students to learn the “entrepreneurial characteristics” of Christopher Columbus and ask teachers to “facilitate open and balanced discussions about difficult topics, including discrimination and racism and provide learning opportunities without personal or political bias.

The Commonwealth of Virginia is home to seven federally recognized tribes: the Pamunkey Indian Tribe, Chickahominy, Eastern Chickahominy, Upper Mattaponi, Rappahannock, Nansemond, and Monacan.

Alton Carroll, a history professor at Northern Virginia Community College, of Mescalero Apache descent, said Indigenous News Online that his initial reading of the proposed standards struck him as “so patently wrong and so strongly partisan.”

“The idea that Native people were immigrants and therefore have no more right to the land than anyone else is a white supremacist talking point,” Caroll said. “And for that to be replicated by a governor’s office, it’s appalling.”

Chief Frank Adams of the Upper Mattaponi Indian Tribe, headquartered in King William County, Virginia, told Native News Online that the language used to describe Native people in what is now Virginia is harmful. and inaccurate.

“I thought we were making progress, and then you read something so derogatory and so ugly and it’s like: how can educated people write these words on paper for the world to see? You can learn a lot of things, but it’s really hard to unlearn them.

Over the past year, a multi-stakeholder task force has worked to develop new learning standards in history and social studies, which Virginia updates every seven years. When the new standards were published late on Friday evening, November 11, members of the working group were stunned by the last-minute changes to the proposed text.

Virginia Sen. Jennifer B. Boysko (D-Fairfax) said the new standards present “drastic changes” from those she helped develop on behalf of the Culturally Relevant Education Practices Advisory Committee and Virginia Inclusive Schools which met from 2021-2022 to recommend new standards to the Department of Education.

“We focused on telling the stories of all kinds of people who live in Virginia, our native population and our new immigrants, people who came to the 20th and 21st century,” Boysko said. Indigenous News Online. “[We were] focus on inclusion and looking at the story without trying to pretend it wasn’t painful. And I believe a lot of that has been whitewashed.

Dr. James Fedderman, president of the Virginia Education Association, said that by contrast, the history standards presented over the summer “have been created with care and professionalism, the result of significant input from top historians and curriculum experts from the state and our nation” and promoted “rich discussion and critical thinking.”

At a Nov. 17 Board of Education hearing on the proposed standards, dozens of Black, Asian, Indian, Native American Virginians and other diverse communities came forward to testify. After the meeting, the board delayed action on the new draft and voted unanimously to direct the department to create new standards.

The board further asked the state superintendent to provide a concordance document comparing the August, November and combined versions and to correct any factual errors and omissions identified in the August and November versions, according to Department of Education spokesman Charles Pyle.

Superintendent of Public Instruction Jillian Balow apologized for the language in the draft standards describing the ancestors of Virginia’s Indigenous people as immigrants and promised to correct the error as soon as possible.

“She deeply regrets that the offensive language in the draft standards was not detected and corrected before the document was made public,” Pyle told Native News Online. “She also intends to contact the State of Virginia and the Federally Recognized Indian Tribes to directly express her regret for this error.

Courtney Wynn, a registered citizen of the Chickahominy Indian Tribe of Virginia, testified before the school board Nov. 17 against the proposed standards.

wynn said Indigenous News Online that, as a product of the Virginia education system that already reduced Virginia natives to a footnote in a textbook, the proposed regulations were “disheartening”.

“To start [kindergarteners’] education with a lie that says we migrated here from Asia – that’s a reductive term, and it’s not true,” she said. “It erases the civilizations that were here for thousands of years, the inherent sovereignty of those nations. Words matter and those simple words have erased much of our history. I wouldn’t want kindergarteners to get to know us by first learning a lie.

Chief Adams said he hopes the Ministry of Education will start from scratch and reach out to tribes and other stakeholders for input.

“I don’t know who writes these standards, but it’s pretty obvious that they’re out of step with Virginia’s demographic climate, and that’s offensive,” he said. “I understand that it’s very difficult to write the right standards, but if you don’t use the expertise of the Latino community, the black community, the Native American community, how can you expect to get a standard to work? You have to appeal to the people who have lived through it and who have lived through the problems for generations.

Indigenous News Online also contacted Governor Youngkin’s office about proposed education standards, but did not hear back.

About the Author: “Jenna Kunze is a staff reporter who covers Indian health, environment and breaking news for Native News Online. She is also the publication’s senior reporter on stories related to Indian boarding schools and repatriation. His bylines have appeared in The Arctic Sounder, High Country News, Indian Country Today, Tribal Business News, Smithsonian Magazine, Elle and Anchorage Daily News. Kunze is based in New York.

Contact: [email protected]

Nohemi M. Moore