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Panel: Students often get limited info on Native Americans

From left to right are Gordon “Ollie” Wareham, Crystal Bowers, Rollie Gilliam III, Kim Cunningham and Wilson Bowers. (Photo Damon Scott)

DAVIE – How students learn about Native Americans in the classroom (or learn at all) was the basis for a panel at the Broward County Public Schools “Equity Conference” on June 17. Four members of the Seminole Tribe and a member of the Mohawk and Lakota tribes took part in an hour-long session at the Signature Grand event venue in Davie.

Seminole tribal members on the panel included Gordon “Ollie” Wareham, the director of the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum, Crystal Bowers, Rollie Gilliam III, the quality assurance analyst for the tribe’s Education department, and Kim Cunningham (Mohawk/Lakota), an instructional facilitator in the Broward County Public Schools equity and diversity department.

Dozens of Broward County educators, including Seminole tribal member Wilson Bowers, attended the panel. Some educators said they don’t always know the most effective way – or the most reliable resources to use – when teaching about Native Americans and the Seminole Tribe.

Cunningham said one of the core problems is that the state of Florida doesn’t have any mandates that require educators teach about Native Americans – although some states do. A recent survey by the National Congress of American Indians of 27 states with federally recognized tribes found that 11 required public schools to teach about Native Americans in at least some grade levels.

Cunningham said Florida does have mandates, for example, that students learn about Holocaust history, African American history, women’s history and Hispanic heritage. She said she’s been working with Seminole tribal members to push for a mandate in Florida.

“I cannot understand people living on our land and never learning about us at all,” she said.

Cunningham added that although some teachers try, many are overworked or don’t have the time to figure out how to accurately teach about the contributions of Native Americans and their history.

Wareham said that when teachers do include Native Americans in their lesson plans, it’s often incorrect or as an afterthought of history.

“I had a teacher around the [Florida panhandle] tell me that it was in their books that there are no Native Americans in Florida, that they were all wiped out and are nonexistent,” he said. “I said, well the Seminole Tribe is here. But we’re presented as history only. We’re part of the history courses but not of today, we’re [presented as] not part of the community.”

Wareham said the disconnect is why he works to engage with museums, historical societies, colleges and universities in his role as the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum director.

“We want to change that narrative because it’s hurting us as a community, as people. We are here, we have a voice and we do matter,” he said.

The panel also talked about the balancing act of working with interested educators while also maintaining tribal privacy.

“There’s a lot of culture and traditional teachings that we hold close to the chest and the majority of it isn’t for public knowledge,” Gilliam said. “When certain things get out in to the public sphere, we’re not allowed to confirm or deny it, because grandma and granddaddy say: ‘hey this is just for family, you keep it as such.’”

Gilliam added that there’s also a public perception that the Seminole Tribe is mostly about gaming and the glitz and glamour of the Guitar Hotel in Hollywood.

“But I look at it as the blood and the tears that come from that – that’s where the land was at,” Gilliam said. “We’re bigger than those casinos and those guitars that y’all see. We have five programs [in Education] that I do quality assurance for and make sure that it’s done according to our tribal needs.”

Some audience members asked where to get accurate resources to teach about Native Americans.

Crystal Bowers suggested that educators try to access Indigenous-owned bookstores for materials and seek out Native American authors.

“Like Birchbark Books in Minnesota. They’re more accurate resources, more true,” she said.

Wareham said there’s a great resource for educators on the Big Cypress Reservation.

“Bring the kids to the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum,” he said. “They can get the story from the people.”

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Damon Scott
Damon is a multimedia journalist for the Seminole Tribune. He has previously been an editor and reporter for digital and print media in Florida and his home state of New Mexico. Send him an email at damonscott@semtribe.com.
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