Running head: STATE SOCIAL STUDIES STANDARDS 1
NOTE: This is a published paper. Please cite using the following information—
Warner, C.K. (2015). A study of state social studies standards for American Indian
education. Multicultural Perspectives, 17(3), 1-8.
A Study of State Social Studies Standards for American Indian Education
Connor K. Warner
University of Missouri-Kansas City
STATE SOCIAL STUDIES STANDARDS FOR AMERICAN INDIAN EDUCATION 2 2
This study surveyed social studies standards from fourteen US states seeking to answer:
a) what social studies knowledge about American Indians is deemed essential by those states
mandating the development of American Indian Education curricula for all public K-12 students?
and b) at what grade levels is this social studies content knowledge mandated in public K-12
schools? Document analysis, open-coding, and constant comparison revealed that the knowledge
states’ standards require can be organized into six themes: identification/classification of tribes,
distinct tribal cultures, contributions to mainstream U.S. culture, tribal government, connection
to environment, and economics/occupations. The findings also revealed that the majority of
standards relating to American Indians are directed to elementary grade levels. Standards in only
two states, Maine and Montana, cover a breadth of curricular content and require that content
coverage continue K-12.
STATE SOCIAL STUDIES STANDARDS FOR AMERICAN INDIAN EDUCATION 3 3
A Study of State Social Studies Standards for American Indian Education
She doesn’t look like an Indian—this is a common response when I (the author) tell new
acquaintances that my wife is a citizen of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians. Such a
statement is, of course, untrue. My wife “looks” exactly like an Indian; she is an Indian, which is
a complex social, political, cultural, and ethnic identity (Haynes Writer, 2001; Markstrom, 2011).
What statements like this one really mean is that my wife does not conform to the ethnic
phenotype that forms the stereotypical image of American Indians held by most non-Indigenous
U.S. citizens (Davies & Iverson, 1995; Fleming, 2006; Haynes Writer, 2001; Pewewardy, 2000).
Lacking knowledge about and experiences with the widely differing, tribally-specific
cultures and experiences of American Indian communities, most U.S. citizens draw on
stereotypes widely circulating in the mainstream imagination, to significant social and
educational effect (Carjuzaa & Hunts, 2013; Mihesuah, 1996; Reese, 1996). This is a major
reason that schools must ensure that curricula include diverse representations of American Indian
experiences (Anderson, 2012; Haynes Writer & Chávez, 2002; Haynes Writer, 2001; Lee, 2011;
Moore & Hirschfelder, 1999). Oftentimes, however, schools have been part of the problem,
serving as vehicles of assimilation and deculturalization (Executive Office of the President,
2014; Haynes Writer, 2001; Loring, 2009; Pewewardy, 2000; Spring, 2009). This study critically
examines state social studies standards with the goals of better understanding a) what social
studies knowledge about living American Indians is deemed essential by those states mandating
the development of American Indian Education curricula for all K-12 students; and b) at what
grade levels is this social studies content knowledge mandated.
STATE SOCIAL STUDIES STANDARDS FOR AMERICAN INDIAN EDUCATION 4 4
But first I provided a clarification of terminology. No unified consensus exists as to the
proper term to refer to the totality and multiplicity of Indigenous inhabitants of what is presently
identified as the United States (Haynes Writer, 2001; Pewewardy, 2000). All of the commonly
used terms are in one way or another limited (Pewewardy, 1998). Thus whenever possible, tribal
designations such as Sault Ste. Marie Chippewa rather than broader terms like American Indian
are preferable (Fleming, 2006; Haynes Writer & Chávez, 2002; Haynes Writer, 2001;
Hirschfelder, 1999; Pewewardy, 2000). Sometimes, however, a broader term is necessary when
the issue being discussed deals with a population larger than a single tribe. Within this article, I
use the terms American Indian and Indian for this purpose. Though I acknowledge the colonial
origin of these terms, this article is, at root, an analysis of educational policy in the form of
content standards, and American Indian and Indian are the codified legal terms used to refer to
the Indigenous peoples of the United States (Executive Office of the President, 2014; Indians,
2011; Johnson & Eck, 1995; Pewewardy, 2003) . Despite the imperfect nature of this choice (the
term American Indians actually refers to hundreds of politically and culturally distinct groups), I
acknowledge and ask that readers hold this term in tension as both capturing a collective
experience as shaped by Settler/Colonial policies, while also risking the homogenization of the
experiences of a multitude of distinct tribes (Davies & Iverson, 1995; Haynes Writer, 2001).
A brief understanding of the complexity of an “American Indian” identity is necessary if
this analysis is to have utility. Haynes Writer (2001) noted that while “most non-Indians define
Indians on the basis of individual biological or genetic makeup…and physical attributes…most
Indian people define themselves on the basis of relationship to their specific tribal group through
what…family one belongs to…and where one is from” (p. 44). Tribes themselves, as sovereign
entities, determine their membership requirements, and, as such, those requirements differ
STATE SOCIAL STUDIES STANDARDS FOR AMERICAN INDIAN EDUCATION 5 5
widely (Mihesuah, 1996). This means that, as with any other identity, American Indian identity
is a highly contested and individualized concept. No single Indian identity exists (Davies &
Iverson, 1995; Haynes Writer, 2001; Markstrom, 2011)
Review of Literature
Debunking stereotypes is an essential reason to include accurate representations of living
American Indians in state social studies standards. Much of what people think they know about
American Indians is drawn from a wide variety of cultural stereotypes (Davies & Iverson, 1995;
Fleming, 2006; Ganje, 2011; Johnson & Eck, 1995; Lee, 2011; Pewewardy, 1998; Reese, 1996).
Given that many of these stereotypes are negative, some researchers link general acceptance of
American Indian stereotypes to a wide variety of social difficulties for American Indian
individuals (Johnson & Eck, 1995; Lee, 2011; Mihesuah, 1996; Pewewardy, 1998).
Beyond the debunking of stereotypes, important social and political reasons exist to
ensure inclusion of “accurate” (meaning multi-faceted, non-stereotypical, and varied)
representations of American Indian life. For centuries, educational policies regarding American
Indians focused upon assimilation (Coleman, 2007; Executive Office of the President, 2014;
Fischbacher, 1967; Fletcher, 2008; Hale, 2002; Haynes Writer, 2001; Pewewardy, 2003). From
missionary efforts to federal boarding schools, educational institutions tried to “Kill the
Indian…and save the man” (Adams, 1988; Loring, 2009; Pratt, 1892/1973; Roppolo & Crow,
2007). Fortunately, official policies in the last quarter of the 20th century shifted from such
destruction to an official emphasis on cultural appreciation and preservation (Executive Office of
the President, 2014; Hale, 2002). However, some critics argue that failure to update curricular
documents to include a multitude of representations of American Indians (and in a sense, simply
building on and repeating the same old representations) result in a continuation of the ideologies
STATE SOCIAL STUDIES STANDARDS FOR AMERICAN INDIAN EDUCATION 6 6
that undergirded those same policies of assimilation and colonization (Garcia & Shirley, 2012;
Grande, 2004; Haynes Writer, 2008; Loring, 2009; Stanton, 2014). If the only Indians that
students encounter in their schooling are historical Indians, the implication is that assimilation
was accomplished, and that distinct cultural and political tribal communities no longer exist
(Davies & Iverson, 1995; Haynes Writer, 2001; Reese, 1996). The repercussions of sending such
a message are significant (Garcia & Shirley, 2012; Lee, 2011; Loring, 2009).
Though inclusion of varied representations about American Indian plurality is important
for all students, it is particularly important American Indian students. A significant achievement
gap exists between American Indian and other students. A number of scholars argue that a major
contributor to this achievement gap is the stereotype threat experienced by American Indian
students (Fryberg et al., 2010; Mousseau, 2012; Okagaki, Helling, & Bingham, 2009). Stereotype
threat refers to the “social-psychological threat that arises when one is in a situation…for which
a negative stereotype about one’s group applies. This predicament threatens one with being
negatively stereotyped, with being judged and treated stereotypically, or with the prospect of
conforming to the stereotype” (Steele, 1997, p. 614). The presence of stereotype threat has been
shown to decrease academic achievement in a variety of marginalized groups (Shapiro &
Williams, 2011; Steele & Aronson, 1995; Steele, 1997).
One potential strategy to minimize stereotype threat for American Indian students, and by
extension to help close the achievement gap, is to ensure adequate and diverse representations of
American Indian cultures within mandatory social studies standards (Meyer, 2011). According to
Spring (2009), unless minority students are able to see themselves represented within the
curricula, those schools will serve as deculturalizing forces, which can negatively impact those
students’ achievement.. Accordingly, various scholars have recommended that schools develop
STATE SOCIAL STUDIES STANDARDS FOR AMERICAN INDIAN EDUCATION 7 7
curricular materials positively and accurately representing cultural minorities, including
American Indians (Castagno & Brayboy, 2008; Haynes Writer & Chávez, 2002; Pewewardy,
2003; Philips, 1983).
Despite changes in many curricular areas, representations of American Indians have
remained largely stagnant; that is Indigenous content and Indigenous knowledge continue to be
left out of the curriculum or framed as deficient or lesser (Brayboy & Maughan, 2009;
Lomawaima & McCarty, 2002). As Putnam and Putnam (2011) noted, “In the all too recent past,
we have found that the public school’s curriculum, books, materials, and even the environment
are devoid of indigenous content and worldview -- the people and culture are invisible” (p. 5).
Meyer (2011) found that “Biased and inaccurate information about Native Americans continue in
children’s resources and remain in many of today’s curriculum centers” (p. 23). Journell (2009)
surveyed social studies standards in nine states requiring high stakes assessments, finding that
“nearly all of the states cease their coverage of American Indians after the forced relocation in
the 1830s, creating an incomplete narrative” (p. 18). The little existing coverage of American
Indians depicts them primarily as powerless victims.
Hawkins (2005) found similar results in his survey of representations of American
Indians in seven popular US History textbooks. He noted that these textbooks followed two
approaches in representing American Indians, what he called the “dead and buried,” and the
“tourist” approaches. In the former, American Indians are portrayed as existing only in the past.
For example, he noted that last mention of American Indians in the majority of textbooks
involves the 1972 AIM movement. In the latter approach, American Indians are treated as others
outside of mainstream society. As an example, he observed that, “Teachers still design lesson
plans that have students ‘dress like an Indian’ and visit reservations on field trips. They appear to
STATE SOCIAL STUDIES STANDARDS FOR AMERICAN INDIAN EDUCATION 8 8
ignore the complex culture of Native Americans, and refrain from teaching students about
current issues and experiences” (p. 53). Additionally, even where older stereotypes were broken
down, in many instances they were replaced with equally simplistic portrayals of American
Indian life, for instance as solely concerned with gaming (Hawkins, 2002, 2005). Hawkins also
noted that all of the textbooks limit their discussion of modern American Indian culture to
reservation life, failing to note that approximately 65% of today’s Indians do not live on
reservations (Hawkins, 2005).
The procedures for this study were primarily those of document analysis as described by
Bowen (2009). Source selection began with the list of 26 states identified by McCoy’s (2005)
Compilation of State Indian Education Laws as having laws establishing Indian Education
curricula or programs: Alaska , Arizona , California , Colorado , Connecticut , Hawaii , Idaho ,
Kentucky , Maine , Minnesota , Missouri , Montana , Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, New
York, North Carolina, North Dakota , Ohio, Oklahoma , Oregon , South Dakota, Tennessee,
Washington, Wisconsin, and Wyoming (McCoy, 2005). Then the Westlaw database was
consulted to discover if additional states had passed laws establishing Indian Education curricula
since publication of McCoy’s (2005) report. Though no additional states have passed such laws,
Washington and South Dakota did expand their Indian Education requirements (Curricula-,
2005, Curriculum and coursework in South Dakota American Indian history and culture, 2007;
OSPI Indian Education Office, 2010).
Close reading of the laws in these states eliminated 11 from my inquiry. Laws in Alaska,
Idaho, Missouri, New Mexico, Nevada, and New York only apply to American Indian students,
not to all K-12 students (McCoy, 2005). Laws in Kentucky, Minnesota, North Carolina, and
STATE SOCIAL STUDIES STANDARDS FOR AMERICAN INDIAN EDUCATION 9 9
Tennessee only require teaching of American Indian issues on specific heritage days or months,
an approach generally decried as ineffective (Haynes Writer, 2008). Laws in Wyoming simply
allow for the development of American Indian language curricula, but do not mandate such
curricula or deal with issues beyond language (McCoy, 2005). Three states—Colorado, North
Dakota, and Nebraska—do not specify any concrete information that students must learn about
living American Indians (Colorado Department of Education, 2009; Nebraska State Board of
Education, 2012; Sanstead, 2007).
I next completed close readings of the state social studies standards of the remaining 14
states, noting any content knowledge item relating to living American Indians. Using the
techniques of open coding and constant comparison (Glaser & Strauss, 1967; Strauss & Corbin,
1994), I established emergent themes from those documents.
The following themes emerged from the contemporary knowledge required by the 12
remaining states’ social studies standards.
1) Identification/classification of tribes. Knowledge items in this theme ask students to
identify or classify Indian tribes. Arizona requires second graders to “recognize current Native
American tribes in the United States (Diethelm et al., 2005, p. 25); Montana requires fourth
graders to “identify characteristics of American Indian tribes and other cultural groups in
Montana” (Juneau, 2010, p. 7); Oregon requires fourth graders to be able to “identify the 9
federally recognized Oregon tribes and their aboriginal boundaries” (OR Department of
Education, 2011, p. 6); and South Dakota requires fourth graders to “Identify the locations of the
nine major reservations in South Dakota” (South Dakota Department of Education, 2007, p. 29).
STATE SOCIAL STUDIES STANDARDS FOR AMERICAN INDIAN EDUCATION 10 10
2) Knowledge of distinct tribal cultures. The most common knowledge item required
by states involves students understanding elements of distinct tribal cultures. An example of this
is Connecticut’s standard for first graders requiring students to “Examine Native American
culture through books and art” (Connecticut State Department of Education, 2011, p. 14).
Another example, for twelfth graders in WI, mandates that students “analyze the history, culture,
tribal sovereignty, and current status of the American Indian tribes and bands in Wisconsin”
(Evers, 2013). Maine, Montana, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Dakota, and Washington also
include standards that fall under this theme (Maine Department of Education, 2007; Juneau,
2010; Ohio Department of Education, 2012; Barresi, 2013; Oregon Department of Education,
2011; South Dakota Department of Education, 2007; Bergeson, 2009).
3) Contributions to mainstream US culture. Along with requiring students to
understand elements of distinct American Indian cultures, a handful of states also mandate that
schools teach about the contributions of Indians to mainstream US culture. Social studies
standards from California, Maine, Ohio and Oklahoma contain elements of this theme (Maine
Department of Education, 2007; Barresi, 2013).
4) Tribal governments/sovereignty. Another commonly included theme involves
knowledge relating to tribal governments and sovereignty. Upon graduation from high school,
Montana requires students to be able to “Analyze and illustrate the major issues concerning
history, culture, tribal sovereignty, and current status of the American Indian tribes” (Juneau,
2010, p. 5). Likewise, Oklahoma requires fourth graders be able to “Describe the purpose of
local, state, tribal, and national governments in meeting the needs of American citizens” (Barresi,
2013, p. 32). Washington has perhaps the most comprehensive treatment of tribal sovereignty,
having developed an interactive curriculum guide for integrating instruction in sovereignty
STATE SOCIAL STUDIES STANDARDS FOR AMERICAN INDIAN EDUCATION 11 11
across a variety of subject areas and throughout elementary, middle, and high school (OSPI
Indian Education Office, 2010). California, Maine, Oregon, South Dakota, and Wisconsin also
require students to understand content related to this theme (Larsen & Eastin, 2009; Maine
Departmentof Education, 2007; Oregon Departmentof Education, 2011; South Dakota
Department of Education, 2007; Evers, 2013).
5) Connections to environment. This theme represents the common stereotype of
American Indians as environmental stewards (Rosser, 2010). Though this is a positive
stereotype, it can be damaging nonetheless, and so, as with all essentializations, it should be
avoided (Mihesuah, 1996; Moore & Hirschfelder, 1999; Reese, 1996). Unfortunately, those
states that address this topic within their standards do not provide sophisticated guidance. Hawaii
requires fifth graders to “Compare the views of Native Americans and Europeans regarding the
relationship between humans and the land” (Office of Curriculum Instruction and Student
Support, 2005, p. 60), and Connecticut requires that fourth graders be able to “Explain the
relationship between the environment and Native Americans’ way of life in Connecticut”
(Connecticut State Departmentof Education, 2011, p. 27). Social studies standards from
ARIZONA, Maine, Montana, South Dakota, and Washington also fit into this theme (Diethelm
et al., 2005; Maine Departmentof Education, 2007; Juneau, 2010; South Dakota Department of
Education, 2007; Bergeson, 2009).
6) Economics/occupations. The last theme involves knowledge items relating to
economics and occupations. Along with the more positive image of American Indians as
environmental stewards, a stereotype present is of American Indians as often unemployed and
living on government subsidies (Hawkins, 2005; Johnson & Eck, 1995). Unfortunately, however,
only four states specifically address this issue within their state social studies standards. Maine
STATE SOCIAL STUDIES STANDARDS FOR AMERICAN INDIAN EDUCATION 12 12
requires that graduating students be able to “understand economic aspects of unity and diversity
in Maine, the United States, and the world, including Maine Native American communities”
(Maine Departmentof Education, 2007, p. 12). Oklahoma’s and Montana’s social studies
standards also include knowledge items relating to this theme, focusing on Indian gaming
(Juneau, 2010; Oklahoma State Departmentof Education, 2013). Washington’s state standards
offer a sophisticated perspective on this theme, mandating discussions of tribal agriculture,
investment, commercial fishing, and gaming (Bergeson, 2009).
Grade Level Distribution
In a few states, distribution of knowledge items follows the same pattern that Brophy
(1999) found in his research—American Indians are represented through upper elementary, then
they disappear until high school history classes. For example, in South Dakota upper elementary
schools, students are required to identify the tribes of South Dakota, understand their distinct
cultural features, and “Identify water issues, farming and ranching issues, and Native American
and non-Native American relationships” (South Dakota Departmentof Education, 2007,
4.US.1.2). They then do not need to learn anything about living Indians until their high school
government course, where they learn about tribal governments and military volunteerism among
American Indians (South Dakota DepartmentDepartmentof Education, 2007, 9-12.C.1.3, 9-
12.C.1.5). In Arizona, living American Indians are part of second and eighth grades, and in
California, Connecticut, Hawaii, and Ohio, living American Indians disappear from the standards
after upper elementary, and never reappear. Only four states—Maine, Montana, Washington, and
Wisconsin—require knowledge items relating to living American Indians throughout elementary,
middle, and high school.
Limitations and Recommendations for Future Research
STATE SOCIAL STUDIES STANDARDS FOR AMERICAN INDIAN EDUCATION 13 13
Though this study provides a systematic overview of depictions of American Indians
within the social studies standards of states identified as having laws requiring Indian education
curricula, it remains a preliminary overview of representations of American Indians within K-12
schools. Certainly many, if not most, states which have not passed specific laws requiring the
teaching of American Indian curricula likely do still teach information about American Indians.
What is actually taught to students depends not just upon educational policy in the form of
content standards, but also upon the state mandated assessments of those standards, the
curriculum guides and resources developed at the state and local levels, and the personal
knowledge and competency of classroom teachers.While standards have significant influence
upon curricula, they are not the only influences; as such, future reseachers may consider analyses
of district, school, and classroom curricula in order to develop a broader understanding of what
K-12 students are learning about living American Indians. State mandated social studies
assessments could also be analyzed to reveal if schools are being held accountable for even the
limited knowledge of American Indian cultural diversity that is currently included in state social
studies standards. Lastly, researchers may consider surveying tribal leaders, elders, and
community members to determine what kinds of knowledge they believe students should know
about American Indian cultures and compare those recommendations to what is currently
Since Brophy’s (1999) study, much has changed in the realm of educational curricula.
The increased push for educational accountability based upon high stakes testing and the rise in
importance of state educational content standards have reshaped the US educational landscape
(Journell, 2009). The Common Core state standards have placed increased emphasis on “critical
STATE SOCIAL STUDIES STANDARDS FOR AMERICAN INDIAN EDUCATION 14 14
reading and historical thinking” using primary documents, but this has not translated into broader
inclusion of American Indian perspectives within textbooks or curriculum (Stanton, 2014, p.
664). As this study shows, American Indian cultural plurality is still under-represented in state
standards as well, which must change because,
As long as citizens of the United States are conditioned not to see Native people as
human beings with human aspirations, national interests, and cultural integrity, with a
long history of struggle to maintain their treaty rights guaranteed by the U.S. constitution
and by international law—then the citizenry of today, like the citizenry of 100 years ago
and 200 years ago, will passively condone or actively support continued aggression by
the U.S. against Native peoples. (Moore & Hirschfelder, 1999, p. 76)
In order to make this happen, states need to ensure that their social studies content standards
include a diversity of representations about American Indian cultural plurality. As this study
shows, they have generally failed at that. So too have textbook companies (Hawkins, 2005;
That leaves the burden, as with so much in education, upon classroom teachers. As
Haynes Writer & Chávez (2002) argued, “the teacher is still ultimately responsible for including
American Indians in the curriculum. It is also the teacher’s responsibility to make sure the
information that is taught is current, accurate, and appropriate” (p. 4). Lacking state mandates
and state supports, teachers will need to take it upon themselves to keep American Indians from
vanishing after the end of the 19th century and represent them as vibrant and important part of
contemporary US culture.
STATE SOCIAL STUDIES STANDARDS FOR AMERICAN INDIAN EDUCATION 15 15
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