What Is the California Missions Project Teaching Kids About Native Americans?

4 years ago

It's the time of year when fourth graders (and their parents) in California are breaking out the glue guns and sugar cubes, in the name of learning about history. For those of you who aren't familiar with this rite of passage, the state curriculum has for years included a chapter in which school kids make a model of one of the historic missions built by the Catholic church.

Image Credit: Grace Hwang Lynch

My son did this assignment last year, and I was surprised at how much this project has changed since I was a child. An entire cottage industry has sprung up, selling everything from from templates to complete kits for these models, much to the dismay of the more creative teachers and parents.

But for many Native Americans, it hasn't changed enough. The real problem lies in how indigenous peoples are addressed --or not -- in the curriculum. Deborah Miranda, author of the book Bad Indians, offers this explanation at her blog Bad NDNS:

I think the effect of the typical Mission Project has been to not just implant racial stereotypes about Native Californians in children’s minds, but also to assert that those racial stereotypes are, in fact, okay – sanctioned by all of the authorities in a child’s life, from parents right on up the chain of school administration and into government. The result of that, of course, is a general public who does not question laws that discriminate against Native people, and which doesn’t even know how to have an civil conversation about historic wrongs, responsibility for justice, or compassion for communities suffering from historic trauma.

Deborah has much more to say about the California missions project, and other representations of Native Americans at her website. I've also heard some school districts allow students to do a report on an Indian tribe, instead of a mission. Does your child's school teach Native American history?

News and Politics Editor Grace Hwang Lynch blogs at HapaMama and A Year (Almost) Without Shopping.

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