While discussing the Civil Rights Movement in class the other day, a student accidentally said "Native Americans" instead of "African Americans." We were discussing some core concept words (segregation, integration, power, powerless, persecute) and one of my co-teachers took this opportunity to bring Native Americans into the discussion.
"Who are the Native Americans?" she asked.
"Stone Age!" comes a reply from a bright student in the back of the class.
"Native Americans are still alive?!" quickly followed.
So taken aback, we stared at each other - eyes wide, mouths gaping - for a good 15 seconds (which sounds like no time at all, but leading a discussion of 30 sixth graders, it is an eternity). Finally, we continued the conversation, explaining that Native Americans live today in cities, towns, and reservations, and struggling in this off-the-cuff context to do justice to the history of our country's first people.
I've spent a great deal of time reading about Native representation in children's books and texts, especially Debbie Reese's excellent blog, American Indians in Children's Literature and the resources published by Oyate press. I've written extensively on race and representation in books for children and young adults. Yet, I've never seen first hand the effects of this Native erasure so clearly displayed. It was horrifying. I don't expect my students to know much about the Native genocide, AIM, the forced sterilization, and modern life on say, Pine Ridge Reservation. But I do expect them to know that Native people exist. I'm terrified of an education system that so fully disappears the more unsavory aspects of our history.