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“They’ll know more than I ever knew”

More states move to require lessons on Native American history and culture

In several U.S. states, thanks to the effort and dedication of educators from the Indigenous Peoples, progress has been made in incorporating basic information on history, culture, language, and cultural traditions of Indigenous Nations that originally inhabited this country. They are regional efforts that document a review of local history and the recognition of the provisions of the original inhabitants of this country.


In contradiction, there is a far-right effort to hide the history of colonialism and the genocide against Native Peoples, as a decree of the Governor of South Dakota (where Standing Rock is) to disappear the location of reservations of the tribes in geography classes as well as all cultural and historical references of specific originating peoples.
“What is even more disturbing is the effect removing our shared history will have on Lakota children in public schools in this state. Again, they will be relegated to the “bad guy” in every fantasy about the American conquest. Ignored will be our great leaders, people, culture, contributions, and rightful lands.” said Harold Frazier, chairman of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe.


However, this struggle has resulted in positive changes, so we shared below an encouraging report of Chalkbeat about community indigenous education construction.

When Jaylyn Suppah was a high school student, she had a lot of questions for her civics teacher.
Why were their lessons on Native Americans about tribes from the Midwest, with no mention of regional tribes like hers, the Warm Springs, Wasco, Shoshone-Bannock, and Yakama? Why did the textbook only spend a few pages on their history? And why were critical topics, like the forced assimilation of Native American children at US boarding schools, missing?

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Arguing with her teacher, Suppah recalls, got her kicked out of class. The experience stuck with Suppah, who advocated for an Oregon law over a decade later that now requires public schools to teach from a fuller, more accurate history of the Native American experience.


Changes are coming: The state developed some lessons and has provided tribes with funding to develop their own specific materials. Suppah’s grandmother has even contributed to the curriculum her tribe is creating, giving Suppah hope that her own children won’t have to fight to see their languages and traditions represented at school.
“I just would like them to have a more inclusive, truthful experience as far as it comes to Indigenous perspectives and how our story is told,” she said.


Efforts like this are underway across the country, as momentum builds to improve how U.S. schools teach American history — including the more painful parts of it — and better recognize the contributions of Native Americans.
But tribes and school officials are up against a series of challenges. Many tribal nations were hit especially hard by the pandemic and are recovering from great loss. Many states don’t spend much, or anything, to help develop tribally specific curriculum or to train teachers.


And some educators worry that their efforts to teach a more accurate version of U.S. history, including about massacres of Native Americans and federal policies that limited their rights, could run up against efforts to restrict educators from teaching about the ways in which racism is embedded in the country’s policies and laws.
“There is the fear of doing it because of the backlash,” said Deborah Dennison, who heads San Carlos Unified schools in Arizona, where nearly all of her students are members of the San Carlos Apache tribe. Her state passed a law this month banning educators from teaching about who bears responsibility for historic acts of racism. “To me, it’s more important now than ever.”


More states are adding, or discussing, Native American curriculum
The push to improve what students learn about Native Americans at school has existed for decades, but recent advocacy by tribes and Native American educators has led several states to add requirements or expand their curriculum.
The latest state to do so, North Dakota, passed a law earlier this year that requires schools to teach Native American history, starting with the upcoming school year. About 10% of the state’s students are Native American.
“Something like this has been long-awaited, I think, especially by our parents and some of our educators,” said Lucy Fredericks, who directs North Dakota’s office of Indian and multicultural education.

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Some schools and students have seen meaningful shifts
Though there’s been progress, many Native American students, who make up about 1% of U.S. students, or just under half a million, have little exposure to lessons about their history and culture at school. A recent survey of 27 states where many federally recognized tribes live found that only 11 required public schools to teach about Native Americans in at least some grade levels.


A nationally representative federal survey of more than 13,000 American Indian and Alaska Native students, released this spring, found that many elementary school students had teachers who never or rarely incorporated Indigenous culture or history into their language arts lessons.


Laws don’t immediately change those dynamics, as Washington illustrates. There, a 2005 law encouraged school districts to teach about the state’s tribes using a free curriculum called Since Time Immemorial that the state and tribes worked on together. But few districts chose to teach it.
A decade later, schools were required to use the curriculum or teach other tribally specific lessons. In 2018, the state went further, requiring teachers in training to learn about the materials.
Plenty of schools still haven’t started, advocates acknowledge. But Jennifer LeBret, who helped develop curriculum for the Spokane Tribe of Indians, is particularly hopeful about the impact of training teachers before they reach their first classrooms.


“They’ll at least have a taste of what they should be teaching and how to teach it and where to find the resources,” said LeBret, who has taught some of those classes.
For the students and families who have gotten to see these changes in action, it can be a powerful experience.
In Washington’s Wellpinit School District, which incorporates some of the Spokane curriculum, 12-year-old Isaac Park is learning Salish, one of the Spokane languages, and he learned about the menthol-flavored root that members of his tribe traditionally picked to soothe sore throats.


“We get to learn about what happened a long time ago, the stuff they had to go through when they were starving,” he said. “It feels like history, but the cool part is that there are still verbal stories that carry it on, so we know that it’s true.”
When school was remote during the pandemic, his mother, Teea McCoy, learned more about her tribe’s history alongside her son. That included lessons about Indigenous boarding schools, where many children died or were abused, which sparked her son’s interest in watching video interviews with his great-great-great grandmother about the local boarding school she attended.

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“They’ll know more than I ever knew,” McCoy said. “Me, growing up, my history was all Christopher Columbus.”
And as schools work to recover from the pandemic, school leaders say culturally responsive education like this will be especially important for re-engaging students.
“It’s about the system meeting the needs,” she said, “And they’re not just all academic needs. It’s a lot more than that.”
Source: This story was originally published by Chalkbeat, a Nonprofit News Organization Covering Public Education. It has been edited for length.


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