My son and I are Native Alaskan and we live in California. Last year my family decided to do a 5K Turkey Trot together on Thanksgiving Day. We each received a printed T-shirt with a gigantic turkey dressed in a headband and feathers.
I mentioned my disgust with the shirt to my mom, who recently moved here from Utah. Her comment was, “That kind of thing would never happen in Utah.” She then described the in-depth Native American curriculum that has been established across the state of Utah in every public school.
Utah isn’t the only state implementing this type of curriculum. Other western states, including Washington and Montana, mandate inclusion of similar programs—and for good reason; they benefit all students, Native and non-Native.
Those who know the national statistics on the school performance of Native students know that drop-out levels are high and family or tribal support for education is low. But a recent article describing the use of tribal curriculum in Washington state reports it is eliciting incredible results for its student population.
In states like Washington, typically disenfranchised Native students—many of whom come from intense poverty and high unemployment—are being introduced to a new sense of pride in their cultural history and heritage. A higher percentage of these students are meeting state standards and scores are rising since the implementation of the Tribal curriculum. Significantly, much of the available curriculum about Native Americans has been generated by Native people.
And Native students are not the only young people who benefit. Those who live in areas with small Native American populations may have limited access to authentic information about tribal culture and history. Schools have a responsibility to prepare students to function in our diverse society. Requiring or encouraging the implementation of tribal curriculum provides all students the opportunity to learn about Native culture. It also increases the number of educated individuals prepared to identify painful stereotypes and call them out.
A first step to introducing Native curriculum is to research information available about the tribes in your own region. What tribes live in your state? Find out if there is a curriculum available already. There is so much available both online and in libraries. Be careful of your sources, and stick with information, books and websites generated by Native people. The following websites can get you started:
Tribal studies, Native American units and Native curriculum implementation should not be relegated to November. Take a look at your teaching year and see how you can imbed these vital studies year-round. The more we teach, the less we’ll have to deal with ridiculous stereotypes such as turkeys dressed as “Indians” and children coming home from school with incomplete and often false information about what really happened at that first Thanksgiving.
All American children—Native and non-Native—deserve the right to learn the full truth about culture, history, land ownership, current and historical contributions, and to see everyone accurately reflected in all classrooms. Let’s teach our children and future leaders the truth about our country.
Bliss teaches at Sierra College and lives in California.