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News / Northwest

Native American curriculum rolls out in Oregon

Educators excited despite delay in full implementation

By JORDYN BROWN, The Register-Guard
Published: January 16, 2020, 8:04pm

EUGENE, Ore. — This month, Oregon’s Department of Education finally rolled out the first pieces of new statewide curriculum on the history and culture of Native Americans in Oregon after lawmakers passed Senate Bill 13 in 2017 with the hope of remedying years of incomplete or inaccurate teachings.

This school year is the first time districts are required to implement the change in classrooms — but the curriculum is not yet available for all grades.

Because the department is “behind,” it decided last week to do a soft rollout this year with a hard implementation starting this summer, said April Campbell, the advisor to deputy state superintendent on Indian education.

But despite the delay in full implementation, local educators are excited for the positive impact the new curriculum will have on Native communities in local schools when it arrives.

“It just warms my heart and makes me happy. It makes me smile,” said Brenda Brainard, who is a member of the Confederated Tribe of Coos, Lower Umpqua and Siuslaw Indians. “Having worked in Indian education for 25 years, I never thought this would happen — I never dreamed.”

SB 13 is short and clear in its purpose: to ensure that all of Oregon’s public schools have curriculum related to “the Native American experience in Oregon, including tribal history,” according to the bill language.

Rachel Hsieh teaches fourth grade at Malabon Elementary School in the Bethel School District. While waiting for the state’s new curriculum, she and other fourth grade teachers at the school researched and dove deep into social media to find books highlighting Native American culture and history while still being suitable for young readers.

Here are some of the books related to tribal history she has in her classroom:

  • “At the Mountain’s Base” by Traci Sorell.
  • “Bowwow Powwow” by Brenda J. Child.
  • “Chester Nez and the Unbreakable Code, A Navajo Code Talker’s Story” by Joseph Bruchac.
  • “Fry Bread, A Native American Family Story” by Kevin Noble Maillard.
  • “Gaawin Gindaaswin Ndaawsii, I Am Not A Number” by Jenny Kay Dupuis and Kathy Kacer.
  • “Go Show the World, A Celebration of Indigenous Heroes” by Wab Kinew.
  • “In the Footsteps of Crazy Horse” by Joseph Marshall III.
  • “Many Nations, An Alphabet of Native America” by Joseph Bruchac.
  • “Nibi Emosaawdang, The Water Walker” by Joanne Robertson.
  • “The People Shall Continue” by Simon J. Ortiz.
  •  “Unstoppable, How Jim Thorpe and the Carlisle Indian School Football Team Defeated Army” by Art Coulson.

This encompasses the history of topics such as sovereignty issues, Native culture, treaties and current events. The teachings must be historically accurate, “culturally relevant,” and community-based.

This law follows similar mandates to teach tribal history enacted in Washington in 2015 and Montana in 1999.

The state department’s responsibility per the law was to work with the nine Native American tribes in Oregon to develop 45 lesson plans across all disciplines and grades, Campbell said. The department also is required to provide professional development trainings to school districts about how to teach this curriculum.

The laws says districts are responsible for implementing in their schools a minimum of 15 of the 45 lessons available.

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Although the curriculum is not yet available for all grades, the lessons that are available — for fourth-, eighth- and 10th-graders — were put out by the department this month.

“We were hoping to have all 45 lessons up before the beginning of this school year and now we’re just putting up some of the lessons this month,” Campbell said.

There was supposed to be a hard rollout of the material — which is distributed through the department website — this year.

The primary delay on the curriculum development was due to extra time working with Native leaders to create the “Essential Understandings of Native Americans in Oregon,” which are nine foundational topics, such as as sovereignty, treaties, genocide and identity, they decided the curriculum should be built on.

The law only states that the implementation of the curriculum must first start during the 2019-2020 school year, but does not dictate any other deadline within that year.

“We’re encouraging districts to look at the lesson plans as they can,” she said. “We’ve been doing professional development since last summer. … There’s still a significant need to continue to do professional development,” so more will be provided this summer.

The state developed the curriculum with the input of Native leaders for 18 months, Campbell said.

“It’s a 50,000-foot level (look) — critical, essential concepts that they wanted to make sure lesson plans were aligned to,” she said. “These concepts are sovereignty, identity, federal laws and policies and genocide. So those essential understandings were developed with the intent as a framework as the lesson plans were created.”

They purposely tried to form the curriculum around unraveling stereotypes and misconceptions about Native Americans and provide professional development that would reinforce to educators why this is important and instrumental in teaching a full image of history.

Native American curriculum can be taught in every class, educator Brainard said, beyond just social sciences and history.

As the director of the Natives Program in Eugene School District for 25 years, Brainard has taught on topics such as Native American dance in physical education classes, Native foods in health, basket weaving and totem carving in art, and native storytelling in language arts.

Last year she taught more than 500 lessons across all disciplines and grades, she said.

The history piece is, of course, still a major pillar of lessons, Brainard said. There’s still much to be taught on topics such as restoration and termination, Native American housing, tribal comparisons and, of course, the expedition of Lewis and Clark.

“So much of our history here in Oregon, but for the whole United States is always East looking West,” she said. “It’s this magnificent expansion, and we rarely look at the West viewing what happened to the East.

“I always tell my students, that I want to be very clear that I think Lewis and Clark (are) heroes — but so is Sacagawea,” Brainard said. “There are some inaccuracies, but there are also missing points — the wonderful contributions of the Indians, of the Native indigenous people that were here.”

Bethel School District also has been working on incorporating tribal history since last year ahead of the state’s rollout.

Rachel Hsieh teaches fourth grade at Malabon Elementary School. A teacher for 10 years, she has taught at Malabon for six, and worked this year to integrate conversations about tribal history with the direction of curriculum developed by Oregon’s Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde.

“A lot of times, students still come in with pictures of braids and feathers and not a lot of clothing, so we do a lot of ‘What do Native Americans look like?’ ” Hsieh said, about dispelling stereotypes.

She has introduced new reading materials, territory map projects and information about Oregon’s nine tribes.

“Kids just come in and are naturally so open-minded,” Hsieh said. “I think it’s our grown ups who have a harder time. … Kids see the injustices faster.”

Incorporating accurate Native American history and curriculum has helped students understand and recognize those injustices and struggles, she said.

While some districts, such as 4J and Bethel, already have been bringing a Native American perspective into some classrooms ahead of the law, there is still an anticipation and excitement among teachers and students for the new curriculum.

“We’ve been talking about it for two years now, and our students are just hungry for it,” Brainard said. “The Native students, they’re just waiting for it.”

Students keep asking “When is it going to happen?” she said.

Since the curriculum hasn’t rolled out in entirety yet educators haven’t seen what kind of impact it may have, but are already hearing from students that they’re excited about it. Native students also say they are ready to see themselves in Oregon’s history.

“Our students perpetually say, ‘Where’s my place? In this history, where are we?’ ” Brainard said.

Hsieh has heard some of the same comments from students, which is why she has worked to incorporate perspective and materials by not only Native Americans, but also African Americans and Asian Americans.

“My classroom is very diverse so it’s important for me to make sure they know they have a spot in the world and belong,” she said. “A lot of our curriculum just isn’t made with diverse perspectives … To me, to not do this would feel like a disservice. So to me, it wasn’t an option not to (teach the tribal history).”

Hsieh and Brainard are heartened by the fact that this curriculum will eventually be implemented in all grades and be more comprehensive than it has been in the past.

“Indian students say Indian history is taught fast. It’s like one day or one minute or one class, and so the balance has been very lopsided,” Brainard said. “And in addition to requiring authentic and accurate Native American history, this law put the focus on local tribes. So, it will give a real opportunity for students to understand the contributions and the fact that tribal people are still here right now … right where they live.”

Educators hope Native students will be able to see themselves in the history of Oregon and the U.S., and foster their own sense of identity as a Native student included in school discussions and activities.

“Having grown up in a kind of town where my tribe was — Coos Bay — it always talked about everybody else, and there was never a place for me,” Brainard said. “I am so excited for our children to hopefully have the opportunity to find their place. I’m so happy the curriculum is finally out. It’s almost not real.”