Letter to the Times: Education commissioner’s remarks compound grief Indigenous children are feeling

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Note: The Lawrence Times runs opinion columns and letters to the Times written by community members with varying perspectives on local issues. These pieces do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Times staff.

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During a Kansas Virtual Learning Conference keynote presentation, Kansas Education Commissioner Dr. Randy Watson was discussing the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“I had some cousins in California — they were petrified of tornadoes — they’d come visit us, you know, in the summer. They’re like ‘are we going to get killed by a tornado’ and I’d say, ‘don’t worry about that, but you got to worry about the Indians raiding the town at any time.’ And they were, they really thought that. You know, grow up in California, I guess you don’t know much of the history of Kansas.” 

As an Indigenous mental health professional and an elected official, I am glad that Watson recognized the mental health impacts that the COVID-19 pandemic has had on our youth. The American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, and the Children’s Hospital Association have declared a national emergency in child and adolescent mental health. Additionally, U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy focused on supporting youth mental health, writing: “It would be a tragedy if we beat back one public health crisis only to allow another to grow in its place.” 

And on July 20, 2020, the Lawrence-Douglas County Health Board declared racism a public health crisis

​Watson’s remarks amplified the ever-increasing need for even our state’s top officials to understand just how systemic racism costs the U.S. $16 trillion. Yes, $16 trillion dollars.The $16 trillion is the sum of estimated economic losses from home ownership, education, income and business investment gaps between vulnerable populations and white households. 

Watson’s “inappropriate” remarks clearly demonstrated that he has little or no Indigenous education of history and culture. There is no excuse for how his hurtful, disparaging comments impacted our Indigenous community members. 

American Indian and Alaska Native (AI/AN) youth experience trauma at higher rates than other youth in the U.S. population. Native youth are 2.5 times more likely to experience trauma compared to their non-Native peers. A report from the Attorney General’s Advisory Committee on AI/AN Children Exposed to Violence noted that AI/AN juveniles experience post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) at a rate of 22%, the same rate as veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, and triple the rate of the general population (Dorgan et al. 2014; Robin et al. 1996).

​Our children deserve better. Our children matter.

The U.S. government entered into hundreds of treaties with Indigenous peoples. In many treaties, the federal government agreed to guarantee education, health care, housing, and other services to Native American nations. 

There are 574 federally recognized Native American nations. There are four federally recognized tribes in Kansas. I am a citizen of the Kickapoo Tribe in Kansas. I live off of the Kickapoo Indian Reservation like so many of our greater majority Indian people who live off-reservation in urban America. Our United States citizenship does not end at the Indian reservation border, nor does the unique status of government obligations to our Indian people of the United States terminate at the Indian reservation border. Our Native American people are guaranteed the full United States constitutional rights as all other citizens, and we accept the responsibilities of citizenship. We all treasure our constitutional rights, whether we are from Coffeyville, Lawrence or Topeka, Kansas. These full guaranteed constitutional rights should be at the centerpiece for developing Indigenous knowledge in state curriculum. 

​We are now coming to the end of Black History Month. Now is the time for the State of Kansas to act and invest in our educational systems. Our communities of color deserve better. The pandemic has highlighted unprecedented stresses. Watson’s comments only compounds and exacerbates unimaginable grief for our Indigenous youth. 

In his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote, “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.”

Ginawaydagnuc, or We Are All Connected.

Kindly and miigwetch (thank you),

Carole Cadue-Blackwood, LMSW

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Letter to the Times: Education commissioner’s remarks compound grief Indigenous children are feeling

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“Now is the time for the State of Kansas to act and invest in our educational systems. Our communities of color deserve better,” Carole Cadue-Blackwood writes in this letter to the Times.

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