LAKE VIEW: Days before she signed legislation banning the teaching of divisive concepts on race in Iowa schools Gov. Kim Reynolds stood on the shores of Black Hawk Lake, a popular Lake View recreation destination named after a Sauk warrior who lost his birthplace, endured prison and brutality at the hands of white settlers and even had his final remains stolen in a morbid exhibition scheme.
Black Hawk is not only the face of the lake, he’s a face of a state and nation’s history fraught with broken treaties and genocide.
But can school teachers — say in the nearby East Sac County or Carroll Community school districts— teach those facts about the life of Black Hawk under the Reynolds-backed legislation? Or are they off limits because of the critical, albeit factual, portrayal of white people in 19th-century Iowa?
Speaking after an agriculture-and-recreation event at the lake earlier this month, Reynolds, in response to a question from The Times Herald, said Black Hawk’s story still should be included in educational discourse, but under certain conditions. The governor says teachers should offer “both sides” of the destruction of Native American life in Iowa, a genocide by the hands of European settlers.
“As long as it is balanced and we are giving both sides, I think it is part of history and they should be able to teach that,” Reynolds said. “It has to be balanced and (we have to) make sure we are having a conversation, and we are educating children, not indoctrinating, and actually giving them the chance to learn and to make their own decisions.”
If that involves letting Black Hawk, through history, make his own case, in his own words, this is what those students would read — if educators included his 1832 surrender speech, one of the more notable orations from a Native American — one whose statue is a landmark in Lake View.
“An Indian who is as bad as the white men could not live in our nation — he would be put to death, and eaten up by the wolves,” Black Hawk said. “The white men are bad school-masters; they carry false looks, and deal in false actions; they smile in the face of the poor Indian to cheat him; they shake them by the hand to gain their confidence, to make them drunk, to deceive them, and ruin our wives. We told them to let us alone; but they followed on and beset our paths, and they coiled themselves among us like the snake.”
Sebastian Braun, director of American Indian Studies at Iowa State University, said Native Americans join Black, Latino and Asian Americans in being often excluded or misrepresented in American history.
When asked if there are any misconceptions in Iowa schools about Black Hawk, Braun laughed.
“Is anything even taught in the American education system? That would be my first question,” he said.
What often has been taught about racial issues — or is believed to be taught — caught the attention of the Iowa Legislature.
Republican legislators said they have received calls, emails and texts from concerned parents about the “indoctrination” of their children into certain racial theories in the K-12 public school system.
In response, Reynolds, with GOP legislative support, signed a bill prohibiting specific divisive concepts from diversity training and school curriculum like saying America and Iowa are systemically racist.
The bill does not specifically list concepts like Critical Race Theory or the 1619 Project, but both have been subjected to criticism. Reynolds said Critical Race Theory would fall under the ban.
“Critical Race Theory is about labels and stereotypes, not education. It teaches kids that we should judge others based on race, gender or sexual identity, rather than the content of someone’s character,” Reynolds said in a statement. “I am proud to have worked with the Legislature to promote learning, not discriminatory indoctrination.”
The 1619 Project places the consequences of slavery and the contributions of Black Americans at the core of American history, according to the 1619 Project’s website. Critical Race Theory is decades old and grew out of critical legal studies. It involves critically examining and questioning the roles race and racism play in society and how they affect legal systems. It emerged in the legal academy and has spread to other fields of academic study, according to the American Bar Association.
Attorney Monic Behnken, a member of the Ames School Board and an associate professor of sociology at Iowa State University, said Critical Race Theory centers around the idea that racial inequalities have not improved since the theory emerged.
Iowa joins a handful of other states in creating legislation to combat what many see as “anti-American” rhetoric in workforce trainings and public education, mirroring an executive order that passed at the end of the Trump administration. Behnken said it is difficult to have conversations about the impacts of these laws because they are inaccurate in portraying Critical Race Theory.
“I look at these laws in total and am just confused,” Behnken said. “I am not quite sure what has been outlawed or why it is being called Critical Race Theory, because I don’t see Critical Race Theory reflected in the specific things that are now illegal.”
Behnken said there are some components of Critical Race Theory that may be taught at the undergraduate level, but Critical Race Theory is a high-level and complex area of academic study that mainly exists at the graduate level.
In February, the Ames Community School District received criticism from Republican legislators about the district’s “Black Lives Matter at School” week curriculum.
House File 802 doesn’t limit a specific curriculum but instead prohibits assigning status and privileges to a specific race or sex and assigning bias based on race or sex, referred to this as “race or sex scapegoating.” The bill also prohibits academic concepts that present America and the state of Iowa as systemically racist or sexist.
“Critical Race Theory has been around for decades; it is not new, but this conversation is,” Behnken said. “This conversation exists in a context that our country has lived through this socio-political uprising over the past summer, that has been rolling for decades, and what I am seeing across the country are really attempts to ban conversations that people want to have about how our world looks.”
Specifically related to Black Hawk, Braun said few students come to his class informed about Black Hawk’s story or with any prior knowledge about indigenous people and cultures at all.
“If anything is taught, it is definitely the case that students don’t have a good understanding of what happened,” Braun said. “I take great care, if you want, to balance things out.”
In the course Americans of Iowa, Braun kicks off his class by asking his students what they know about Iowa’s history, which tends to be very little.
“What the American education system is doing right now is, it is presenting American history, and American history is defined as basically white, Anglo-Saxon Protestant,” Braun said.
Braun said he is hired to not present opinion, and he calls for balanced discussion.
“When I teach something like that, I think students should understand both the positive and negative consequences,” he said. “What I try to teach students is not what I feel about it. What I try to teach students is how they can then look at that data and make up their own mind.”
Braun has received an array of feedback from students of different backgrounds. Some accuse him of being an apologist of the treatment of native people, while others come to him and defend the reasoning behind assimilation. Braun said these perspectives comes from political assessments people already have done.
When teaching Iowa’s history, Braun said the foundation of the state flows from treaties. Every square inch of Iowa is treaty land, and the native Iowa people were annihilated shortly after Euro-American settlement. In the 1830s, tribes ceded their land through treaty and purchase. Now the Mesquaki Settlement is the only remaining settlement in Iowa, home to the Fox and Sauk tribe.
“We cannot get a true understanding of Iowa history if we don’t understand those processes, what they meant and mean today, and that is what’s not being taught,” Braun said.
Braun visits schools to try and infuse native history into curriculum.
“I was hired to teach factual accounts of history, of cultures, of societies,” he said. “Now if somebody asks me to do this in a balanced manner, I honestly don’t quite know what that means, because what they would be asking is to teach from a political perspective. And this is exactly what I am hired to not do — I am not hired to bring politics into the classroom.”