Adan Quan is a member of the Class of 2023 and one of the Editors-in-Chief for Portrait. This is his second year on staff as a junior. Adan’s favorite...
Breaking the silence
Indigenous students navigate personal histories, despite limited curriculum
May 6, 2022
In a dilapidated nursing home in Oklahoma, an old woman lays in bed. After battling an infection in the hospital, she is shuffled between nursing homes, since she isn’t receiving proper care. She finds herself surrounded by her family, but without any effective ways to communicate without her hearing aids and glasses. In the final months of her life, she declines, and is rarely able to speak.
When she does speak, however, the words are new and relatively unfamiliar to the children nearby.
She is speaking Comanche—a language her great granddaughters hadn’t heard before, and that is only spoken by a small number of people as a first language. And for Noemi Tehauno (12), who remembers it as fourth or fifth grade, it is one of the more significant memories of their great grandmother.
“It was really difficult to see her like that, but also, like, that was the first time I had ever heard anyone speak Comanche. So that was [interesting],” Tehauno said.
Tehauno’s parents named them after their great grandmother, Naomi. While their great grandmother died when they were young, they still remember her fondly. In Michigan, Tehauno is reminded of their great grandmother by the quilts that were originally knitted by their great grandmother and her friends, which are displayed in the MSU museum. They were initially surprised to learn that the quilts were at MSU.
“The fact that they had something that someone in my family helped make made me kind of angry,” Tehauno said. “Museums and Indigenous people have a very rocky history. But I did get to see them and like they were like pretty accommodating to like my family.”
Tehauno has always been aware of their Comanche heritage. But with fewer than ten students identified as Native American or Alaskan at ELHS, finding others to connect with about their heritage is a challenge. And since they moved from Texas with their family after their step-father got a job at MSU, the only connection they’ve had is their sister.
This doesn’t mean they are completely disconnected—they’ve started going to Nokomis Center in Okemos, along with their sister. At the center, Tehauno and their sister learn about the local Anishinaabe people and culture. They have also met several interesting people at the center, from various tribes and nations, including someone who is Apache from Texas
“Even though they’re not people from my tribe, they’re still native people. And like, it’s, we can still connect to like some shared experiences,” Tehauno said.
This diversity and education has allowed Tehauno to become more connected overall. But this is something that they weren’t able to learn at school, or in any clubs.
Tehauno has only taken a few classes at ELHS, choosing to dual enroll instead. But in the few they have taken, they have found there is not enough content about Indigenous peoples and the atrocities committed against them. This is something that resonates with them especially, since their great-grandmother went to Fort Sill Indian School in Oklahoma. These schools were meant to separate Indigenous children from their families and culture, in an attempt to “Americanize” them.
The importance of teaching Indigenous history and about Indigenous people and cultures is exemplified by the experience Tehauno had with their U.S. History course. They found that events, especially atrocities and policies meant to systematically eradicate Indigenous people, were not covered adequately
“It was painful for me as an Indigenous person to watch that, because I saw, like, the policies that have impacted my family, and like, kind of burdened me intergenerationally [not being covered],” Tehauno said.
Other students agree that not enough is taught about Indigenous history and issues. One of those students is Owen Singel-Fletcher (10), who is a member of the Grand Traverse tribe.
“It would have been nice to just have a constant reminder for everyone to know that this is actually our land that was occupied and has still been occupied to this day,” Singel-Fletcher said.
Singel-Fletcher stays connected through traveling with his father, who is a judge for the tribe, and family visits up north.
For Tehauno, however, it is more difficult to stay connected, since their family is in Oklahoma and Texas. They wish they would be more connected than they are now.
“But it’s very difficult to reconnect to that,” Tehauno said. “And that’s kind of by design and by policies that were implemented, and the impact on my tribe and other tribes in the U.S. and Canada.”
For Tehauno, it is important to have discussions in class about Indigenous people, to emphasize that they still exist in the U.S.
“[U.S. history] paints like Indigenous people, like purely in the past and not also in the present,” Tehauno said. “When you do that, you’re just setting Indigenous students up to have bad experiences in public school and for non-Indigenous students to not know, when they’re doing something wrong.”
Among a wider push for Indigenous people, histories and cultures to be included in curriculums, some individual courses and teachers at ELHS have worked in lessons about them. Both Pre-AP English III and Multicultural Literature have lessons or units on Indigenous people and stories, with each having a slightly different approach. According to Elena Espinoza, who teaches both classes, Pre-AP English III looks at oral storytelling traditions of different nations and tribes and then modern storytelling.
Multicultural Literature, on the other hand, looks all around the world at different aspects of cultures and has research projects as well as documentaries and readings. In all of this, Espinoza hopes to keep in mind that she is not Indigenous herself.
“My goal is to educate students about Indigenous peoples without speaking for them, so I often incorporate their own voices—media created by Indigenous people about their experiences being Indigenous—into my lessons to provide students with a more nuanced understanding of Indigenous joys and struggles,” Espinoza said.
When teaching these units, Espinoza also provides the context and terminology necessary to discuss the topics respectfully, and carefully curates her questions to ensure “respectful and humanizing” conversations. In addition to spreading awareness about the influence of Indigenous literature on other American literature—the main focus of English III classes—Espinoza also thinks it is generally important to teach about Indigenous peoples.
“We need to teach about Indigenous culture, history, and peoples at school in order to disrupt our country’s long history of silencing Indigenous voices as well as to give our Indigenous students a chance to see themselves in their schoolwork,” Espinoza said.
A significant factor in Tehauno’s negative experiences is a lack of awareness from inadequate education on Indigenous issues. They’ve experienced white Americans and students telling them claiming Indigenous heritage, and asking insensitive questions.
Tehauno was once asked, “how Indian are you” at a club, when they mentioned they were part of a tribe. One more common experience was when a student told Tehauno that they were “raised Indigenous,” simply because they were on a powwow committee. While Indigenous students and people like Singel-Fletcher participate in powwows, Tehauno emphasized that this one thing, or claimed distant ancestry, doesn’t make a person Indigenous.
“Just because you were involved in something like an Indigenous, like activity and no Indigenous people doesn’t mean you’re Indigenous necessarily,” Tehauno said.
Most of all, Tehauno emphasized that Indigenous peoples are very diverse- the term covers a wide range of people, and can be applied to people native any region. For this reason, Tehauno prefers to be identified by their tribe, not a broader label.
“I just think people need to understand that Indigenous people exist in a very diverse way. And there isn’t one way to be or look Indigenous. I mean, the term Indigenous itself covers such a broad array of experiences,” Tehauno said. “I feel like people don’t necessarily understand that. And they have, like, a certain set of stereotypes and like preconceived notions about who Indigenous people are, and like how they exist in the world, right now.”