Kansas Board of Education agrees to expand Indigenous education outreach

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TOPEKA — The Kansas State Board of Education on Tuesday voted to expand Indigenous education outreach from the K-12 to college level, following debate that touched on mascots and political agendas.

Members approved 9-1 a memorandum of understanding to establish the Kansas Advisory Council for Indigenous Education, joining the Kansas Board of Regents with the agreement. The vote formalizes the partnership between the state board, regents and advisory council on consultation about Kansas Indigenous education. The regents signed the agreement March 21.

“We have the opportunity to have some meaningful educational opportunities, just to have conversations, just to understand each other better. I think that is critical,” board member Jim Porter said.

The Kansas Advisory Council for Indigenous Education was created as a temporary committee, meant to strengthen relationships with the state’s four Native nations and bolster educational outcomes for Indigenous children and youths. Board member Dennis Hershberger cautioned against political animus in historical discussion before voting in favor of the measure. 

“I’m just wanting to encourage factual history to be taught and if that’s the goal, then I appreciate that effort.” Hershberger said. “… From a biblical standpoint, everyone’s created equal and we want to look at every one with virtue and value. It’s so important that we look at history that way.”

The move comes two years after comments from Randy Watson, the Kansas commissioner of education, during a virtual education conference in 2022. 

“I had some cousins from California. They were petrified of tornadoes,” Watson said at the time. “They’d come visit us, you know, in the summer. They were 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 really thought that.”

Watson apologized for these comments and was suspended without pay for one month.

During Tuesday’s Board of Education discussion, several members asked about the political impact of the council. Board member Danny Zeck, the one “no” vote, questioned council member Alex Red Corn, a citizen of the Osage Nation of Oklahoma and an assistant professor at Kansas State University, on mascot recommendations. 

“Is this the same group that wants to get rid of all the mascots?” Zeck said.

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In 2022, the council recommended that the BOE prioritize persuading local school officials to abandon culturally offensive branding.

More than 20 Kansas schools still have American Indian themed mascots, and many tribes have expressed opposition to these mascots due to concerns they damage the perception of Indigenous people and encourage stereotypes that represent American Indians as “exotic, warlike people who are stuck in the past,” according to a council memorandum. 

Red Corn said the group is currently focusing on analyzing student data and working on teacher certification. 

“Mascots tend to get more attention,” Red Corn said. “But they’re actually not much of the bandwidth that we’re working on right now.  … We’re actually moving toward the idea that we need to create collaborative systems of education so they learn about this place, it is Kansas, and its history and what it is today because of that history.” 

Kansas Reflector is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Kansas Reflector maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sherman Smith for questions: info@kansasreflector.com. Follow Kansas Reflector on Facebook and Twitter.

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