Tribal curriculum aims to break down stereotypes

By Linda Shaw
Kingston, Washington (AP) June 2010

Randi Purser stands before a group of middle-school students, a dozen woodcarving tools spread before her. As she explains why she started carving a few years ago, she interweaves the history and culture of her tribe, whose reservation is just down the road from Kingston Middle School.

She tells the students how Suquamish tribal members once carved everything from totem poles to boxes and tools. How she dives for geoducks to make a living, under her tribe’s treaty rights.

Purser’s visit isn’t just a one-shot glimpse into the world of a nearby tribe.

Throughout the semester, a few teachers here have infused lessons about Washington tribal history and culture into state history classes, part of an effort to encourage all schools to do the same.

The goal is to increase understanding about tribes across the state 
Faeuro” their histories, their cultures and especially their existence as sovereign nations.

“We really want to break down a lot of the stereotypes and misconceptions that people have about the tribes and tribal people,” said Denny Hurtado, state director of Indian education, and one of the project’s leaders.

With the 1974 Boldt decision, which reaffirmed tribal fishing rights in Washington, “people were saying things like, ‘Why do these Indians have special rights?’ “ Hurtado said. “If they really understood the history and the truth, they would understand that we’ve always had these rights.”

Right now, most Washington students learn little about Native Americans, and even less about tribes in Washington state, where there are 29 federally recognized tribes 
Faeuro” more than all but a handful of other states.

Textbooks don’t help much – the one Kingston Middle School uses for state history ends its discussion of Native Americans around 1877.

Even in Kingston, where students live within minutes of reservations belonging to the Suquamish and Port Gamble S’Klallam tribes, many know little more than their names.

Many teachers shy away from teaching more because good materials have been hard to find, and they fear getting it wrong.

“It’s truly just out of not knowing,” said Gayle Pauley, of the state education department. “I used to teach third grade ... and there were so few authentic resources, it always bothered me.”

Seven years ago, tribal leaders from across the state set out to change that.

They told then-Gov. Gary Locke they wanted to require school districts to teach tribal history and culture. In 2004, state Rep. John McCoy, a member of the Tulalip Tribes, introduced a bill that would have done that. It failed that year, but a year later legislators approved a bill that encouraged districts to do so.

For the past two years, the tribes, the state and 14 schools have worked together to create and refine a curriculum covering tribal history, culture and sovereignty, and to establish partnerships between tribes and school districts.

This fall, the curriculum 
Faeuro” which may be the first of its kind in the nation 
Faeuro” will be available online for any teacher or school to use.

Mary Lou Macala, a teacher at Kingston Middle School, has been part of the pilot project from its beginnings, using the materials in her Washington state history classes.

This year, for example, she presented a unit on the Walla Walla Council in 1854, where several Eastern Washington tribes ceded millions of acres of land, for which they were given cash, hunting and fishing rights, and were placed on reservations. She assigned students the roles of miners, homesteaders, traders, missionaries, or tribal members and had them explain the conflict from those perspectives.

She’s also shown films, used oral histories and other primary materials, and invited guests like Purser to talk about their lives and how they are affected by issues the students have studied, from the oppression of the boarding-school era to conflicts over treaty rights.

“The kids need to know: This isn’t just happening in the past. It’s happening now,” Macala said.

The curriculum, she said, “offers a depth that I didn’t have.”

Other teachers say they appreciate working with neighboring tribes so that when students ask questions, such as why tribes have casinos and where the profits go, they know where to find answers.

“If I don’t know, I now have a relationship with people I can ask,” said Mike Sando, a history teacher at Enumclaw High, which has a partnership with the Muckleshoot Indian Tribe.

For Native American students, the curriculum offers recognition and a validation of their place in the state, teachers say. And it offers Native and non-Native students insights into historical events that neither may know.

“People assume that when you come from a tribal family, you know your history,” said Shana Brown, a Seattle teacher who wrote much of the sovereignty curriculum. “We are no different from families that might or might not know about their Irish ancestry.”

The curriculum is designed to be straightforward.

“You can always put politics into things,” said McCoy, D-Tulalip, who sponsored the legislation that led to the curriculum. “I really didn’t want to do that.”

The curriculum presents the Native American perspective on events, but as a way to enrich, not replace, what’s already taught.

As a teacher, Brown said, she understands how little time teachers have and how hard it is to add anything new, so she’s designed the curriculum so that teachers can use a little or a lot.

“No one,” she said, “is going to take six weeks out of their year to teach about tribal government.”

Still, she hopes teachers will include more information about tribes when discussing events such as the American Revolution, or how government works. Even if they just have students read one document, that’s progress, she says.

When the curriculum becomes available online in the fall, it remains to be seen how many teachers will use it. McCoy hopes they all will, and is working to raise money to open six training centers around the state where teachers can learn how to use it.

“This is to get everyone to understand that because these treaties were signed, they are the law of the land,” he said. “And consequently, tribes are sovereign nations. There are so many people that don’t understand that.”