SF schools face pressure to remove offensive depictions of Native Americans from mural, textbooks

From a mural inside a San Francisco high school that depicts white colonizers stepping over the dead body of a Native American to history books that portray Pocahontas as a “willing” prisoner of Jamestown settlers, Native American parents and educators say the school district’s curriculum and hallways are riddled with inaccurate and racist messaging.

Advocates this week called for an overhaul of the district’s history curriculum and textbooks to reflect the achievements of Native American communities and to give a more accurate picture of history, and renewed calls to remove what they described as a culturally and historically offensive mural inside George Washington High School. The 1932 mural, which in one place depicts white colonizers stepping over the dead body of an indigenous person, has stirred controversy at the school for decades.

“For two years I have been asking people to come together with me on [replacing the mural],” Amy Andersen, a teacher at Paul Revere Elementary School, said at a school board hearing Tuesday. “The mural depicts Native Americans as slaves, as merciless killers who attack while whites stand with arms up and surrender.”

“It omits our true historic identity. It all needs to be replaced,” added Andersen.

While advocates have pushed the board to consider removing part or all of the mural for at least two years, they also expressed frustration on Tuesday with the inaccurate history lessons about Native Americans being taught in district schools.

A parent who gave her name as “Mari” criticized the district for “teaching the myth of Pocahontas to kindergartners when they first enter the district.”

An excerpt from a middle-school history book read aloud by school board commissioner-elect Alison Collins called Pocahontas a “willing and curious” prisoner of English settlers who took her hostage.

“While I want to encourage more education around Native American history, we also have to recognize that with that, we also have to remove lies from our textbooks,” said Collins. “With Native American history specifically, it’s not just erasure— there are actual lies in the textbook.”

Chief Academic Officer Brett Stephens confirmed that “many teachers are using old textbooks,” adding that the Pocahontas reference is pulled from a 1996 textbook currently used by the district.

Stephens said the district is aware of the need for a new history curriculum that will more accurately portray indigenous cultures, and is looking at ways to draw “resources from multiple historians who can accurately present the perspectives of many communities”

But changes are unlikely to come in the next few years, as the district’s curriculum and instruction department is focused on implementing the Next Generation Science Standards, a centralized core curriculum aiming to alter science teaching and improve learning outcomes for students, over the next two years, and only has “the capacity to really support one curriculum area at a time.”

“For the next two years though, we will be laying the foundation for potential investment in a new history curriculum,” he said.

He added that a “cultural intelligence” training series to inform educators on the “truthful history of Native Americans” and to understand the “detrimental impact of U.S. Policies” on native communities is currently being piloted at Sanchez Middle School.

But the fact that there has been little movement on the controversial “Life of George Washington Mural” at George Washington High School did not sit well with some of the commissioners.

“I think it’s something that is overdue, and it’s actually embarrassing that you all have to come back each year to remind us that this is something we need to address,” said Commissioner Matt Haney, who will leave the school board to serve on the Board of Supervisors next year.

In the early 1970s, the high school’s mural triggered a series of “response murals” inside the school depicting the achievements of black, Asian, Latino and Native Americans by Dewey Crumpler, now a prominent Bay Area artist.

“It’s not the end of the discussion obviously, but I want people to know that people have tried to address this situation for decades now,” said Commissioner Mark Sanchez. “There needs to be some fair conclusion, by the end of the year hopefully.”

The issue came before the board previously in Fall 2017, when Washington High School, along with two other SFUSD schools, was flagged as eligible for historic resource status by The City — in part because of the murals that decorate the school’s interior.

Stephens said a committee to address the potential removal of the mural has been formed, and met for the first time last week.

In 2016, Haney also called for the renaming of George Washington High School, as the school’s namesake was a known slave owner.

To that end, the board earlier this year adopted a resolution calling for the creation of a blue-ribbon panel of experts to investigate historical figures and the appropriateness of school names, then hold public meetings before making its recommendations to the board.

Stephens said that he is currently collaborating with the California Indian Museum and Cultural Center on “designing a sequence of learning activities” and gathering community perspectives to inform next steps in regard to the mural, with recommendations expected to be presented to the board by April.

“I want to encourage my colleagues to treat this with urgency and immediately take action when this committee comes back and gives us options on what to do,” said Haney.

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