Legislative Education Study Committee Director Rachel Gudgel’s explicit biases against Native Americans, recently uncovered by The Santa Fe New Mexican, are deeply hurtful to me as a mother of three beautiful Native children. My children, like thousands of Native students in the state, have faced years of educational inequities and systematic racism in our education system.
Director Gudgel’s actions, offensive enough to reportedly earn her a two-week suspension, underscore the court decision in the Yazzie/Martinez lawsuit against the state. The court acknowledged that Native people still are fighting the horrible relics of racism in our children’s education.
Gudgel’s behavior is not an isolated incident, but one of many examples of racism in New Mexico’s educational system at all levels of power. This pattern of not being accepted and made to feel like we do not belong in the public school system has been repeated for generations.
A few years ago, the former Public Education Department secretary, Christopher Ruszkowski, cited Manifest Destiny among the “fundamental principles of this country.” Manifest Destiny denies the rich Indigenous cultures that flourished in the Americas prior to the arrival of Christopher Columbus and for which the atrocities of genocide and stolen land were justified. I’m also reminded of the tragic incident at Cibola High School in 2018 where a teacher called a Native student a “bloody Indian” and cut the student’s culturally sacred hair.
Gudgel’s shameful behavior and the excuses leaders made for her show the great need for more diverse representation at every level of our state government and education system. Education decisions that impact all New Mexico students — and the entire state — are made by a small group of individuals, including Gudgel. The people in power have never truly felt discrimination nor understand the damage of systemic racism. They cannot know how to dismantle it and overcome it.
This is exactly why representation matters. Without strong, diverse and respectful representation in education and education policymaking, New Mexico will continue to perpetuate institutional racism against Native students and deny them a quality education that supports their success throughout their lives.
My Diné mother and grandmother taught me children are sacred, and it’s our responsibility to fully prepare them for iiná, or what we call “life” in our Navajo language. They raised me to be proud of my culture and where I’m from. They taught us about our people, our history and our language. It is important for all children to learn about who they are and where they come from.
However, in school, we are taught another culture’s history that does not make sense to us. Important parts of Indigenous history are taught inaccurately or are missing altogether.
With more diverse representation and respect for Native culture among our education leaders, perhaps the state would be closer to complying with the Yazzie/Martinez ruling. It has been more than three years since the court found that the state is not providing our children with a sufficient education. But despite the legal victory and the years of hard work with families and allies, we are still fighting for an equitable education that meets the needs of my children and all young people across New Mexico.
The state must work together with tribal leaders, our communities and Yazzie/Martinez plaintiffs to ensure our public school system is equitable and that it reflects and respects our children’s diverse cultures, languages, histories and lived experiences.
As my grandmother and mother would always say, “Our children are the future.” It is our job to do right by them.
Wilhelmina Yazzie (Diné) lives in Gallup and is a plaintiff in the landmark education lawsuit, Yazzie/Martinez v. State of New Mexico.