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NEA News

Meet Alex Red Corn: Native Educator and Human Rights Activist

A Kansas professor and enrolled member of the Osage Nation, Alex Red Corn is committed to furthering Indigenous education.
Alex Red Corn Kansas State Department of Education
Published: February 22, 2024
This article originally appeared on

"There's an idea that [Native people] are just people of the past," says Kansas professor Alex Red Corn—and that's often how Native people and history is wrongly presented in American classrooms. As an educator and advocate, Red Corn works to improve and expand Native education. He recently spoke with NEA Today about his experiences growing up and how they shaped his drive as en educator.

You are from Oklahoma and later moved to Kansas, two states with valuable and rich Native history. Can you tell me a little about that experience growing up?

We lived on the Osage reservation in Oklahoma until my dad got a job opportunity to move to Kansas City when I was in elementary school. We basically spent most of our lives commuting back and forth. So we spent a lot of time in Oklahoma, even while living in Kansas. We knew that we needed to stay connected to the cultural sustenance down in Oklahoma. My parents and grandparents did a good job of making sure that we held those connections.

You mentioned the cultural sustenance in Oklahoma. What was the difference between Oklahoma and Kansas?

It’s not that they were different, but there's over 570 federally recognized tribes in the United States. So that's 570 different communities and cultures. And when you think about things in a tribally specific context, it's not like we weren't connected to Native communities in Kansas or Native families and people in Kansas. But when you grow up within an American Indian context, there's always a tribally specific nature to that culture.

How was native history presented to you in your earlier years as a student?

I have a distinct memory talking about Andrew Jackson and the Trail of Tears in history class. I asked my history teacher, 'Do you think things could have turned out any other way?' And she sat there and thought for a moment and then said, ‘No. The great story of American progress was too strong and Natives weren't. They were behind in that story of progress and couldn’t catch up.' Now, as a trained teacher, I know that was highly problematic. But at the time I didn't quite know how to process it.

How did that make you feel?

I was a bit confused and frustrated that someone could take that position. And so it kind of stuck with me. But as I got older I started understanding different ways to process things. I began to research. I started to realize, ‘Oh, everything about Native peoples is situated in a past narrative.’ There’s an idea that these are just people of the past and that's most of what people learn.


Why did you eventually decide to move into education?

I actually started out because I thought it'd be fun to be a wrestling coach. But, even though I disagreed with my former history teacher, I did like social studies. I liked exploring the imperfections of people and human systems. And so I moved into education. The more I got into education and understood the role of educators and leaders, the more passionate I became about it. I started to notice that there was a lot of work to be done within these systems to improve them because they are critical for serving American Indian children.

As an educator, how did you guide students to unlearn some of the misconceptions that are typically taught about Indigenous people and history?

I incorporated contemporary experiences into my classroom. [Looking back], while I incorporated more context and nuances around American Indians and presented more contemporary American Indians, I still think some of what I even did at the time would be problematic if I was critiquing my younger self in the profession. It is critical to understand that even if you're a Native who becomes a teacher, you still rely on Eurocentric systems of education to train you on how to be a teacher. As a classroom teacher, I hadn't yet deepened my understanding about the specific issues around American Indians in classrooms. I had an idea, but not a deep understanding. The more I started doing that as a veteran teacher, the more clarity I gained.


Do you have any idea on how to make the teaching profession more attractive and supportive of Native educators?

Most teacher training programs are based on Eurocentrism. It can be hard for Native people to get excited about something that they don't necessarily see themselves in. Typically, you can't go to a local college and be trained in your Native language to be a language teacher. You don't learn about your tribal governance systems, histories, artists or tribal authors. So you’re mandated to learn English or other European languages like Spanish and French. You don't necessarily have the people in the right places and the curriculum built to let Natives be trained in their own governments and cultural systems.

For your Indigenous students, have you kind of felt them or noticed them feeling left out of the curriculum?

I teach graduate-level Native professionals within education. I found that it is a common sentiment. When you build the curriculum around Indigenous people’s needs and worldview, there is an intrinsic value that they see in it—one that they don’t necessarily find in mainstream courses. So, they’re engaged in a different way on a deeper level just by nature of the content and it being relevant to their lives.

There is pushback against what some define as “woke” education, which simply includes using tools to examine systems of oppression for different marginalized groups. What is your response to those that may suggest that the inclusion of Indigenous history is an effort simply to further an agenda?

Every time someone starts tying this work to common political tropes around anti-DEI or anti-CRT, I have to remind them that the work we’re emphasizing from a Native nation perspective is truly about sovereignty. It is tied to legal precedent, legal policy, and federal trust responsibility. We’re not just talking about diversity for the sake of diversity. We’re talking about political sovereignty and citizenship. It’s governance, not just race and diversity.

What do you hope for the future of Native education?

I hope that tribes can take on a more prominent role in the education of their own people. That takes a lot of capacity building and reworking of systems, but Native nations know their people. They know their needs better than anybody else. If we’re able to prioritize their role in the education of their own people and help build up systems where they can do that from a professional standpoint, that is the epitome of sovereignty.


Your Voice. Our Power. Their Future.

The SCEA is an affiliate of the largest professional association of educators in the country. As the leading advocate for the schools South Carolina students deserve, The SCEA works to promote quality public education and to support public school employees.