Pueblo leaders decry Public Education chief’s ‘Manifest Destiny’ comment

Christopher Ruszkowski, secretary of education for the State of New Mexico, expressed remorse for a ‘poorly phrased historical reference’ to Manifest Destiny in a response to pueblo leaders’ objection to his use of the term at a conference on charter schools this month. Luis Sanchez Saturno/New Mexican File Photo

Pueblo leaders are giving state Public Education Secretary Christopher Ruszkowski a history lesson — and calling for an apology — after he praised Manifest Destiny as one of the fundamental principles that built the United States.

Speaking at a conference on charter schools this month, Ruszkowski offered up Western expansion as an example of the American character that should help guide the country’s education policy.

“This is a country built over the last 250 years on things like freedom, choice, competition, options, going west, Manifest Destiny — these are the fundamental principles of this country,” he said Dec. 9, according to The Albuquerque Journal. “That’s why charter schools make so much sense — high-quality options — in the context of where we are as a country.”

But Manifest Destiny is part of the identity of many New Mexican communities in a very different sense, associated not with freedom and prosperity but with destruction.

The term has come to epitomize the ideal that, at the very least, the United States was entitled by God to lay claim to lands from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific and beyond. On another level, it has come to represent an attitude of racial superiority.

In a letter to Ruszkowski on Dec. 14 and obtained by The New Mexican this week, a group of tribal leaders described his comments as “disgraceful, lacking any sensitivity, understanding and appreciation of the atrocious impacts of Manifest Destiny upon generations of our people.”

In a statement on Friday, the Public Education Department said the letter’s portrayal of his remarks was the opposite of what he intended.

“I stand alongside New Mexico’s children, families, educators, and tribal leaders who are fighting for schools that are both higher performing academically and more culturally and linguistically responsive,” Ruszkowski said.

The statement also said he has reached out to every tribal leader in the state to “express remorse for the poorly phrased historical reference and to clarify that portion of his speech.”

The phrase Manifest Destiny first appeared in 1845 as part of an essay about annexing Texas and the westward growth of the United States.

John O’Sullivan, editor of Democratic Party-aligned United States Magazine coined the term in lamenting European meddling in lands the United States was eyeing.

England and France, he wrote, were “checking the fulfillment of our manifest destiny to overspread the continent allotted by providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions.”

O’Sullivan expanded on the idea a few months later in a column for The New York Morning News, and the phrase Manifest Destiny went on to become part of the national identity as the United States tightened its grip on the West. It created an ideological justification for invading Mexican territory, going to war with Spain and dispossessing Native Americans.

Beyond raising concerns about the phrase Manifest Destiny, the letter went on to provide a brief history of laws that turned the education system against American Indians.

“Manifest Destiny for Tribal Nations is aligned with the Doctrine of Discovery that justified the racial hierarchy,” the All Pueblo Council of Governors wrote in its letter to Ruszkowski. The council includes the leaders of New Mexico’s 19 sovereign pueblos and the Ysleta del Sur in Texas.

The letter pointed to the Dawes Act of 1887, which led to the creation of boarding schools for American Indian children and left a legacy of abuse. The letter specifically mentioned Santa Fe Indian School as having been created to assimilate Native children to “fulfill Manifest Destiny.”

“It may have made America great, but it has been at a huge cost to the indigenous peoples of this nation,” the letter said. “A person in your position in 2017 in a state with a population that has been significantly victimized and devastated by these policies you espouse regrettably has no place in a leadership capacity.”

Drawing a line to present-day education policy, the letter criticized recent proposals by the Public Education Department to change indigenous language programs.

And the controversy comes after the department suggested nixing prominent figures in the civil rights movement from statewide social studies exams. The state ditched that idea after an outcry from Democratic legislators.

A few days after the All Pueblo Council of Governors sent its letter to Ruszkowski, it signed on to another letter penned by Learning Alliance New Mexico, which asked him to commit to attending an anti-racism training “as a primary step in working to better represent New Mexico students.”

Gov. Susana Martinez selected Ruszkowski to take over as secretary of the Public Education Department after Hanna Skandera, the agency’s longstanding but controversial chief, resigned this year. Ruszkowski had been the department’s deputy secretary and previously worked for Delaware’s state education agency.

Contact Andrew Oxford at 986-3093 or aoxford@sfnewmexican.com. Follow him on Twitter at @andrewboxford.

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