Equity & Diversity

Native American History, Culture Gaining Traction in State Curricula

By Mary Ann Zehr — November 04, 2008 7 min read
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For decades, the Montana Constitution has made preservation of American Indian culture an explicit educational goal. But educators did little about it until 2004, when the state supreme court ruled that Montana had ignored its responsibility to teach about the state’s seven tribes.

That ruling jump-started an effort that has yielded curriculum materials created in consultation with those tribes, a state-sponsored curriculum Web site, and training workshops that have drawn thousands of teachers from across the state.

Calli Rusche-Nicholson works with a few of her students at Miles Avenue Elementary School in Billings, Mont., where Native American studies are part of the curriculum. Fourth graders, from left, are Britton Hartford, Toby Turcotte, and Alex Chavis.

The push in Montana, where 11.4 percent of the students are Native American, mirrors a move in other states to make the history and culture of indigenous people a specific part of the curriculum, either by law or by administrative policy.

Idaho, Minnesota, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Wisconsin all require students to be taught about Native American tribes in their states, while North Dakota makes a similar mandate part of its teacher training.

South Dakota passed legislation in 2007 requiring the state’s education department—in cooperation with an Indian education advisory council—to craft content for K-12 courses on the history and culture of the state’s tribes.

And since 2006, an Indian education plan has compelled Oregon to help districts include American Indian history and culture in the general curriculum. The state education agency has made material on Oregon’s tribes available through a Web site and provides support with a social studies specialist. Slightly more than 2 percent of Oregon’s 562,000 students are Native Americans.

“The history of our state is inextricably linked to the history of Native Americans, particularly if you understand water and salmon and fishing in the state,” said Patrick Burk, the chief policy officer for the Oregon education department. “Some of the respect for natural resources that has been characteristic of Oregon over the years is linked to Native American history and culture.”

But in adding such mandates, policymakers say they are running up against resource issues—and by what some see as the competing demands being placed on the curriculum by accountability requirements under the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

“High-stakes testing puts a lot of emphasis on reading and math under No Child Left Behind,” said J.P. Leary, the American Indian studies consultant for the Wisconsin education department. “With American Indian studies being, by law in Wisconsin, a subset of social studies, whatever goes with social studies, so goes with American Indian studies.”

A Balanced Image

States must track Native American students along with other subgroups for accountability purposes under the NCLB law.

Calli Rusche-Nicholson works with her 4th grade students at Miles Avenue Elementary School in Billings. More than 10 percent of students in the Billings school system are Native Americans.

Although only about 1 percent of the nation’s K-12 students are Native Americans or Alaska Natives, according to the U.S. Department of Education, the proportion is far higher in some states.

In the 2005-06 school year, the most recent for which detailed demographic data are available, the states with the highest shares of Native Americans in public schools were Alaska, with 27 percent, Oklahoma with 19 percent, Montana and New Mexico with 11 percent, and South Dakota with 10 percent.

State officials have educational and practical arguments for why all students should learn about Native Americans.

Linda H. McCulloch, the outgoing state superintendent of public instruction for Montana, said her state’s mandate “is about understanding the people who live with you in your state and those people who have contributed historically in that state.”

David Beaulieu, a professor of education policy and the director of the Center for Indian Education at Arizona State University, in Tempe, stressed that students need balanced—and contemporary—images of American Indians to overcome 18th- and 19th-century stereotypes.

“Nobody knows about Indians since then—how they volunteered in World War I when they weren’t citizens of the United States, or of the Navajo and others who were code-talkers in World War II,” said Mr. Beaulieu, a member of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe-White Earth.

Indian education advocates also see a civic benefit to educating all students about Native Americans.

Mr. Leary, the Wisconsin education department consultant, said that in the 1980s and 1990s, his state was racked by conflict over Native American treaty rights, the kind of controversy that has erupted in other states as well.

“In the wake of that, it became apparent that really what we had ... was a history of misrepresentation, marginalization, or invisibility of Native American people,” he said.

That led to a law requiring content about Wisconsin’s tribes to be included in social studies standards and assessments. Mr. Leary said agencies and groups, such as the education department and the Wisconsin Historical Society work to provide curriculum material.

Keith O. Moore, the Indian education director for South Dakota and a member of the Rosebud Sioux tribe, said his state’s new law was passed in the hope that it will improve the achievement gap between American Indians and other students.

“We still have a lot of negative stuff [about Native Americans in the curriculum] and hopefully, we will have students see themselves in the school process more—not to be invisible in the process,” he said. “We’re banking on the fact that may be tied to the achievement level.”

Strong state-level leadership and funding are crucial in such undertakings, said Melody L. McCoy, a staff lawyer for the Boulder, Colo.-based Native American Rights Fund, which provides legal representation to Native Americans, and a member of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma. She counts New Mexico and Montana as leaders in this area.

Funding Lagging

Even then, the process can be a long one, as Montana’s experience shows.

Since 1972, the state constitution has said that it “recognizes the distinct and unique cultural heritage of American Indians and is committed in its educational goals to the preservation of their cultural integrity.”

It wasn’t until 1999 that lawmakers approved the Indian Education for All law, demanding schools to teach all students about the state’s tribal heritage. But lawmakers ignored funding requests to implement the law in the 2001 and 2003 biennial budgets, according to Ms. McCulloch, the outgoing superintendent.

In 2004, however, the Montana Supreme Court ruled in a high-profile school finance case that the state had shown “no commitment” in honoring the constitution’s requirement. The decision upheld a lower court ruling that the legislature had not provided any funds for Indian Education for All.

Lawmakers responded with $7 million in start up funds for Native American education in the 2006-07 school year, along with at least $3 million in annual funding starting that school year.

Denise M. Juneau, the state’s director of Indian education and a member of the Mandan and Hidatsa tribes, said elementary teachers have taken the lead in carrying out the requirement that all students be taught American Indian history and culture.

Still, it can be hard to convince teachers in an accountability-driven era that they should add such instruction to their lessons.

Everall Fox is the director of Indian education for the public schools in Billings, Mont.

“The focus on achievement, assessment, and test scores does put you in a pecking order,” said Everall Fox, a member of the White Clay Tribe of Montana and the director of Indian education for the Billings, Mont., school system, where more than 10 percent of the 15,500 students are Native Americans. “It’s a fight and struggle for us to advocate for something that is equally important,” he said.

Specialists in other states cite similar obstacles, but also point to signs of hope, such as high-quality curricular materials about tribes.

And an increasing number of teachers are seeing the value of teaching about the Native American tribes in their states.

Denny Hurtado, a member of the Skokomish tribe and the Indian education director for Washington state, which has a law that “encourages” schools to teach about the state’s Native Americans, has been surprised by the number of teachers showing up for workshops about Washington’s tribes.

While state officials expected perhaps 10 teachers to sign up for an institute on tribal sovereignty last summer, 50 teachers, mostly non-Indians, participated.

Challenges remain, however.

In Wisconsin, some school districts have taken advantage of free technical assistance and specialized curriculum materials on the state’s Native American heritage, said Mr. Leary, the American Indian studies consultant. But unlike in Montana, Wisconsin has not earmarked any funds for teaching about Native American history and culture.

A version of this article appeared in the November 05, 2008 edition of Education Week as Native American History, Culture Gaining Traction in State Curricula


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