In summary

AB 1703 will ensure that students have an opportunity to learn the factual accounts of history involving Indigenous people of California.

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By Johnny Hernandez Jr., Special to CalMatters

Johnny Hernandez Jr. is vice chairman of the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians.

Generations of Native American youth have reached adolescence facing an identity crisis, caught between two cultural forces: the depiction of Native Americans taught in schools and the cultural heritage passed down from their ancestors and woven into their very being.

As a student, I remember the feeling of betrayal to my own family when I listened to a teacher minimizing or eliminating the true horror stories that took place within the walls of California Missions and the plight of Native Americans in this country. We all want to believe our teachers because they are the trusted source that serves as a gateway to a brighter future, but this dependency leaves the adolescent vulnerable. 

When the curriculum challenges the reality at home, an internal struggle often leads to the child yielding to the teacher. To make sure future generations do not share the same pain, it is imperative that the Legislature pass and the governor sign into law Assembly Bill 1703, the California Indian Education Act. 

Introduced by Assemblymember James Ramos, a Democrat from Rancho Cucamonga,  AB 1703 will ensure that all students in the state have an opportunity to learn the factual accounts of history involving Indigenous people of California. It will delete incomplete stories and add accurate accounts. The measure creates California Indian Education Task Forces between Native American tribes and schools that will advise schools on Native American affairs and adopt curriculum and materials.

When I see my children plagued with the same internal battle I endured as a youth, I encourage them to ask questions. When I reassure them of the truth, I cannot help but think of how many students, Native or not, lack the same checks and balances when they return to the sovereignty of their own home. This is why the bill is needed.

The story of California’s tribes is not limited to inaccurate accounts of pain and suffering. There’s so much more. Our state’s tribes have always been diverse. They speak a spectrum of languages and have cultures and traditions that are unique to the region where they live. In California alone, there are 109 federally recognized tribes.

The omission and distortion of history creates an opening for insensitivity. We see it played out in classrooms even today. Last fall, a Southern California math teacher from Riverside made headlines by disrespectfully mocking Native Americans during a lesson. Additionally, Native American students have been prohibited from wearing Indigenous regalia during their graduation ceremonies. 

Things are beginning to change, and we are starting to correct the record. Gov. Gavin Newsom took a major step forward by offering a public apology for the historical mistreatment of the state’s Native people. The apology was greeted with great enthusiasm by tribal leaders, as he acknowledged the state participated in genocide. AB 1703 is another step in the right direction. The bigger story needs to be taught in schools. 

Historical exclusions in education only put students at a disadvantage. Without the broader context of history, students – especially children – will have a harder time understanding more complex social issues surrounding current events today. It will make it harder for them to understand themselves and their ability to relate to people of other backgrounds. 

Today, we have an opportunity to improve California and pave the way for a better educational future for not just Native American students but all Californian children. That is why I am supporting AB 1703. 

California students deserve the truth.  

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