Illinois students will learn Native American history under a bill pending in Springfield
Megan Bang’s son graduated from high school in Evanston last May. He made headlines not for his achievements, but for being stopped from walking in the ceremony for what he wore.
“My son was the first male in our family to graduate from high school,” Bang said. “He has aunties and uncles who went to [Indian] boarding school and his grandpa, who was a boarding school survivor, was there. He would have seen his first grandson graduating from high school.”
Indian boarding schools were set up to eliminate Indigenous traditions and replace them with mainstream American culture.
At graduation, Bang’s son, who is Ojibwe and Navajo, added an eagle feather and traditional beading to his cap and gown to honor the elders of his family who survived those abuses. But he was told it was inappropriate at the ceremony.
“My son was torn up about it,” said Bang, who is part Ojibwe, a professor at Northwestern University and director of the Center for Native American Indigenous Research at the university. “He was like, ‘Mom, one of them was the security guard who I talked to all the time. They’re good people. They just have no idea.’ ”
Though Evanston high school officials apologized soon after the graduation, Bang says the situation with her son was emblematic of the harm Indigenous people face today. At the root of the problem is a lack of education in schools.
A bill at the state capitol aims to change that by making it a requirement for Illinois schools to teach a unit of Native American history. HB1633 passed the House and is now being considered in the Senate. Schools typically already include some Native American history in their curricula, but many Indigenous people say in Illinois that education is incomplete and possibly inaccurate.
“Fifty percent of states have [some requirement] to teach about Native people and 85% of those standards are pre-1900,” Bang said. “Our school systems have been producing either a total lack of knowledge about Native people, or an historicized image of Indians that were from the past — a long time ago.”
If passed, the measure would leave it up to schools to structure the curriculum, but the Illinois State Board of Education would offer learning materials and guidance vetted by a Native American council.
“We’re flanking the issue,” said Rep. Maurice West, D-Rockford, chief sponsor of the bill. “Let’s deal with history in itself in making sure our young people understand Native American history beyond what they see on TV.”
During a floor debate in the House in March, the bill was scrutinized with some members concerned it could inaccurately portray Christopher Columbus or that schools might not have enough control over the curriculum. Some members asked for changes.
“We are desensitized when it comes to a certain community of people,” West responded to his colleagues on the House floor. “So no, I’m not going to change this bill in the Senate.”
Andrew Johnson is the executive director of the Native American Chamber of Commerce of Illinois. If the measure passes, he hopes schools will take advantage of the free resources for the most accurate curriculum. He hopes schools will also take time for professional development.
“I think one of the things that we really found very important is for the educators to unlearn what they had learned themselves as children and through adult stages in their lives,” he said. “The other is to provide the proper resources for them to use in their curriculum.”
If the bill passes, it would be the second of its kind in recent years. Illinois this year began requiring Illinois schools for the first time to teach a unit of Asian American and Pacific Islander history.
Bang is also part of the collaborative that helped craft the Native American education bill. She says people don’t realize the Chicago area has one of the largest urban populations of Native people, yet the state has no federally recognized tribes, which would provide some protections and benefits.
“Because there’s no federally recognized tribes that have their lands, there’s currently no infrastructure for the state to have to think about Indigenous peoples, but there should be,” she said. For example, she said the Prairie Band Potawatomi is fighting “for the return of their lands and their treaty rights that they should have in Illinois.”
Bang says she’s seeing some positive changes, though she says this is only the beginning of what needs to be done. Another bill that passed the state Senate this session ensures students can wear items of cultural or religious significance, a direct response to her son’s experience at graduation. If the Native American education bill passes, schools would begin teaching the units in the 2024-25 school year.
“Our kids deserve the right to be able to be proud of who they are and to imagine our future without it only being about a very narrow battle. I feel like this legislation could really open that up,” she said, before adding: “It’s necessary, but not sufficient for where I think we need to go.”
Susie An covers education for WBEZ.