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Increasing Representation In Highschool History Courses

Kylie Matson

Earlier this year, as one of the last acts of President Donald Trump’s administration, the 1776 Commission released a report on what should be done to support “patriotic education” in the United States.

The commission, which was dissolved by President Biden, was formed partially in response to the 1619 Project, which focuses on the consequences of slavery and the role of Black Americans in the country’s history. 


The question of how history should be taught and whose stories are told is not new, but an increased focus on social justice has brought new life to the conversation. As part of the Uintah Basin Teen Reporter Corp project, I look at how history is taught in a few Eastern Utah Schools. 


The history of indigenous people is a key part of Utah state history. The Uintah Basin where I live is home to the Ute Indian Tribe and the Uintah and Ouray Reservation. While it seems most people agree students should learn about Native Americans as part of our curriculum, there are 

questions about whether or not what we are learning is adequate. 


"A lot of kids don't even know that Natives still exist, a lot of people think that they're extinct because they only teach traditional lifestyles,” said Shawna Failner, who teaches social studies at Uintah River Highschool. 


Uintah River is a Duchesne school located on the Uintah and Ouray Reservation and because the school’s charter is through the Ute Tribe, educators at the school work with tribal leaders in determining how Ute history is taught at the school. And while this may help, it’s only a small piece of a larger picture.


Milo Ralphs is a student at Uintah High in Vernal and he said he doesn’t think he is learning enough when it comes to how history is taught.


“I believe that we are not taught equally about other cultures and we are mainly taught about the history of mainly Caucasian Catholic, Mormon, and Christian people,” Ralphs said. 


When I asked him if he thought we were taught properly about Native American culture, Ralphs said no. 


“The majority of it is just their dances,” he said. 


Nationally, the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement and conversations about social justice have led to more people discussing cultural representation and how American history is taught in school. It’s a divisive issue. Earlier this year in North Ogden, students' parents were provided the option to opt their children out of Black History Month. The decision was reversed, but the conversation did concern many individuals and leaders in the state.


However, not everyone believes there is a lack of representation in the curriculum. Jason Winder teaches social studies at Uintah High and said he is teaching his students an adequate amount about “most cultures in the United States.” 


James Head is a geography teacher who also teaches at Uintah High. He said improvements have been made, but he sees room for more progress. 


“It could use some updating,” he said. “It could be better.”


Another geography teacher at Uintah, Dennis Hull, agreed.


“I think It would be great to expand on some of the cultures that we have,” he said.


This is also the opinion of Failner.


“From what I have seen with history education, even throughout the country, not just our state, is the max amount of time that native culture gets into the history curriculum is basically what tribes were like before Europeans got here,” she said. “They focus on their traditional lifeways and lifestyles. And then they might hit on the Trail of Tears or one of the wars that happened in the 1800s.”


A solution to this issue is communication with leaders and representatives from the Native American tribes and nations in the United States to ensure their culture is taught properly. Failner said at Uintah River, the relationship that educators like her have with the Ute tribe makes a difference in how indigenous history and culture is taught. 


“We have the unique situation of being run by the tribe,” she said. “Our charter is through the Ute Tribe, so we definitely have a lot more culture in our school than in the surrounding districts.” 


This is something Hull wants to improve at other schools in the area. 


“We do a lot to work with the Ute tribe and then vice-versa,” he said. “They have clubs. They have organizations. I would like to see more of a Ute history class presented here and maybe their language taught here at the high school.”


Head said he thinks an improvement he can make in his classroom is teaching more about how 

cultures interact with each other. 


“Because I'm the only one in charge of the Geography II class, I try to bring that to the table when we do Geography II and look at other cultures and look at beliefs and systems from their point of view,” he said. 


But even when teachers want to do these things to improve, they run into a big problem: time. 


“Do we cover everything? No. Do we have enough time? No, we don't,” Winder said. “When we do trimesters, have to do a whole semester in 12 weeks"


Still Head believes changes can be made by shifting the focus of how history is taught. 


"In modern world history we are trying to make it less Eurocentric, and adding more things about India, Africa and other perspectives,” he said. “Which is the way it is written in the core, we are trying to update to reflect that better.”


Failner agreed.


“Every time they pick a standard, they should reach out to leaders in each of the different communities and ask them about what that standard means to their community and their group, so they can know what to include in that standard,” she said. “It's good to know how the American people as a whole were impacted by these events in history, but it's also good to know how individual groups were impacted.”


This story was produced as part of UPR’s Uintah Basin Teen Reporter Corp. The Teen Reporter Corp is a community partnership between Utah Public Radio, Utah Humanities, Smithsonian Institution, Uintah County Library, Hyrum City Museum, and the Bear River Heritage Area. 


This story also ran in the Vernal Express.