In summary

Teaching California Indian history to all students would provide knowledge of the people who have lived here for thousands of years.

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By James C. Ramos, Special to CalMatters

Assemblymember James C. Ramos, a Democrat from San Bernardino County, represents the 40th Assembly District. He is the first California Native American elected to the California Legislature. Ramos is a lifelong resident of the San Manuel Indian Reservation and member of the Serrano/Cahuilla tribes.

While speaking with Native American students, I remind them of one of my childhood lessons: There are three things no one can take from you – your education, culture or spirituality.

Missionaries and settlers tried hard to take all three from Native Americans, but failed. 

One tool, starting in the 1860s, was creation of boarding schools to force assimilation by removing youngsters from their families and tribes. Language, religion and traditions – including Native dress and hair customs – were banned or drastically curtailed. Severe punishment was inflicted for violations. Communication with families was almost non-existent; parents were often uninformed about illnesses, runaways or even the deaths of their children. 

A common expression by administrators of these schools was the need to “kill the Indian, save the man.”

As a result of these and other practices, most Americans – and most Californians – know little or nothing about the First People’s history or contributions even though this state boasts the greatest number of Native Americans living within its borders. Many mistakenly believe Native Americans all share a common language, music, food and traditions.

When I was a child in school, one teacher asked Native students to explain an Indian drum song. We replied we couldn’t because it was not part of the Serrano or Cahuilla culture, the tribes to which my classmates and I belonged. She told us to sit down because we must not be Indian enough. It was one of my first, but not last, classroom experiences with ignorance about Native people.

The good news is that all of us – Native and non-Native Californians – want to do a better job of teaching about Native Americans. This applies not only to teaching Native American students, but all students.

I introduced Assembly Bill 1554 and Assembly Constitutional Amendment 6 to begin this important work. The proposals would integrate California Native American history and culture into the state’s social studies curriculum. It makes sense to add age-appropriate instruction in elementary school when pupils study the mission period, into middle school history courses and high school civics studies.

Instead of eradicating or ignoring our culture, we should go about eradicating ignorance.

Recently, I co-chaired a joint hearing of the Assembly Select Committee on Native American Affairs and the Assembly Education committee into California Native American curriculum and student success. We heard about a Washington state model curriculum, “Since Time Immemorial: Tribal Sovereignty in Washington State,” that has fostered promising results for students and greater tribal engagement and knowledge of that state’s Native people by all residents.

Teaching California Indian history must extend to all students so they can grasp a complete knowledge of our state’s past and the people who have lived here for thousands of years. 

Just as students are taught ancient Greek and Roman efforts at democracy, they should also learn about similar early and ongoing efforts on their own continent by tribal councils and tribal governments. Just as students learn about European atrocities such as the Holocaust, they should also understand the genocide of Native Americans. Ancient Roman innovations of water storage and delivery such as aqueducts and irrigation are taught, but not similar achievements by California’s Indians.

Such education would also help prevent incidents such as the Riverside math teacher who recently wore a fake Indian headdress and thoughtlessly hopped around her classroom to teach trigonometry principles. The lack of respect behind that episode underscores the need to do a better job of incorporating Native American studies so the history of all Californians is taught and learned. Our teachers need more tools to perform their jobs, and we must demand more of our teacher training programs.

By moving forward together to honor the factual history and culture of California Indians, we will truly build mutual respect and appreciation that acknowledges California’s First People.


James C. Ramos has written about the need for meaningful discussions about the treatment of Native Americans in California, replacing Junipero Serra statue in Capitol Park with a tribute to regional tribes and the significance of Gov. Newsom’s apology.

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