As an Ojibwe man, I hold the concept of debwewin — speaking the truth — as one of the central tenets of my life, both in the classroom and outside it. As a scholar who teaches Indigenous geographies, histories and worldviews at the college level, I work hard to bring that commitment to truth to the ways in which I teach my students. Being honest and forthright with my students, even when the truth may be uncomfortable to learn, is at the heart of effective education.
If we do not tell the complete truth about the topics we cover, we are doing our students a disservice.
As a native Minnesotan, I was dismayed and shocked to read “Ethnic studies will turn schools into extremist boot camps” (Opinion Exchange, Jan. 16) by Katherine Kersten. This commentary equates the Minnesota Department of Education’s addition of ethnic studies to core social studies curricula to an “extremist agenda” that will “generate fear and resentment in students of some racial/ethnic groups, and convince them that policing and criminality are oppressive, racially ‘constructed,’ and among the many things they are called on to ‘resist.'”
Kersten asserts that by including ethnic studies in social studies education in K-12 classrooms, students will no longer learn about important events in American history such as World War II, or key figures in American history like George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. Furthermore, Kersten warns, students will be taught to question the very tenets that underpin American society. Kersten portrays this educational shift as being anti-police and anti-American and urges parents and citizens to push back.
Unfortunately, this is not the first time that Kersten has attacked the histories and contemporary perspectives of Black, Indigenous, and other communities of color in the pages of the Star Tribune. In a 2017 piece, Kersten blamed diversity and social justice initiatives in Edina schools for a drop in districtwide test scores (Oct. 9, 2017). In 2019, Kersten used a simplified and whitewashed view of American history regarding slavery and segregation as arguments against the aims of the New York Times’ “1619 Project” (Dec. 8, 2019). Another Kersten piece criticized a collaborative effort between the Minnesota Historical Society and Dakota communities surrounding Bdote (Fort Snelling), describing it as “a revisionist historical narrative driven by ‘decolonization’ ideology” (June 24, 2021).
All this is in addition to Kersten’s numerous editorials and writings as a policy fellow for the right wing-leaning Center of the American Experiment, which take similarly critical views of any histories or perspectives that are not seated in dominant European-American discourses, using buzzwords like “woke,” or citing critical race theory to sow fear and anxiety among its intended audiences.
As noted, educators have an obligation to truth. I regret to inform Kersten that the histories and perspectives that are housed within ethnic studies in fact need to be taught so that students can fully understand the legacies and contemporary situations that drive many of the most pressing issues of the day. Kersten would have Minnesota parents believe that teaching about things such as slavery, settler colonialism and their ongoing contemporary effects represents a degradation of education in Minnesota. I argue that teaching a complete, honest history does the exact opposite.
Why might it be that the Dakota would want to collaborate with the Minnesota Historical Society on providing a more complete history of Bdote? Rather than being the work of “radicals” intent on subversion, this work recognizes the truths that the region surrounding this site was and still is deeply important to Dakota people, and the area below Fort Snelling served as a concentration camp for thousands of Dakota people during 1862-63, before their exile out of the state in the wake of the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862, another historical event that has its roots in colonialism.
Projects such as the “1619 Project,” and contemporary analyses of segregation, police brutality and inequities in the criminal justice system, are all based on the truth that throughout the history of the United States, entire groups of people have been marginalized simply due to the color of their skin. This truth is one that should not be lost on Minnesota, which has its own dark legacies surrounding segregation and mistreatment of Black Minnesotans.
These things were not just whipped up in the last few years by activists or “radicals” — these topics have their roots in American history, and in contemporary American society. Without a true understanding of these complex issues, students will emerge with a one-sided, whitewashed and incomplete view of life in the United States.
I also want to challenge the perception that ethnic studies is inherently trauma-based, or based in grievances. In particular, the assertion that students of color will emerge “angry” from learning these things, an argument which draws on tropes of “unreasonable,” “illogical” minority anger.
I have taught and spoken about Indigenous topics for my entire academic career. While many aspects of Indigenous histories are traumatic, this cannot be sidestepped, given the historical ways in which Indigenous peoples have been marginalized in American history, which has been historically taught from a dominantly white-centered point of view.
But I never linger on the negative in my teaching, as there is so much more to the Indigenous experience. My students have never emerged from my classes “hating the police” or “hating America” because of what I teach. In fact, my teaching evaluations have overwhelmingly stated that what my students have learned allows them to look at issues and appreciate their complexity, and that they have greatly appreciated being in a space that celebrates Indigenous cultures, histories and worldviews.
This is hardly the mark of an “extremist boot camp.”
Another truth around the need to support ethnic studies surrounds numbers. While Minnesota is still predominantly white, the population of Minnesotans of color continues to rise. This means that, increasingly, we will continue to see more students of color in Minnesota classrooms. They deserve to have their perspectives taught.
We should not view ethnic studies as something to be feared, but rather should recognize that for many Minnesotans, these are their perspectives and their worldviews being taught at last. And other Minnesotans will emerge with a truer understanding of the society and world that they live in.
Rather than fear, they will possess understanding and empathy, two skills sorely needed in the world today.
Deondre Smiles (Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe) is an assistant professor of geography at the University of Victoria in British Columbia, Canada.