When Shana Brown was in 11th grade, her US history teacher took a metal wastebasket, flipped it upside down, and started banging on it like a drum. "Go, my son, get an education! Go, my son, get off the reservation," he sang. Brown had grown up on the Yakama Indian Reservation, but went to public school nearby.
"Yeah," she says, letting several seconds pass after telling that story. We're sitting at a cafeteria table on one of the basketball courts of the Chief Leschi School, a cluster of buildings set among fields of plump Puyallup Valley strawberries, raspberries, and rhubarb. A warm breeze drifts in from a propped-open door in the back.
Brown recounts this memory precisely, patiently, and sitting absolutely straight. She's been teaching for 24 years. For the last seven of those years, Brown has taught language arts and social studies in Seattle Public Schools. But for nearly half the time she's been teaching, she's also been painstakingly crafting a curriculum that aims to correct the marginalizing Pilgrims-and-Indians version of history and Native culture so many kids in this state still learn. That's why she's here at Chief Leschi, a tribal school on the Puyallup Indian Reservation, with more than 30 eager teacher-trainers equipped with big, blue binders that read, "Since Time Immemorial: Tribal Sovereignty Curriculum."
Teachers at the training are anxious about what happens next. In May, Governor Jay Inslee signed a groundbreaking piece of legislation that mandates Washington kids learn history, culture, and government with input from the state's 29 federally recognized tribes. It goes into effect July 24, just in time for the start of the next school year.
Washington is only the second state in the country to require teachings about this country from its indigenous people; Montana was the first. But unlike the $4.4 million the Montana legislature allocated for its tribal curriculum, Washington's law didn't set aside any funding. Whatever funding there is comes from the tribes themselves, private organizations, and the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction's internal budget. Together, they've raised about $300,000.
Now Brown and trainers like her are tasked with using that money to spread the curriculum to the state's 295 school districts.
"It's a big fucking deal," she says, momentarily breaking her teacher-trained poise.
Aside from limited financial resources, the biggest obstacle for Brown and others in rolling out this new curriculum may be other teachers who lack interest in Native history, culture, and government, or parents who may worry the new curriculum fosters "white guilt" in young kids. They're preparing to take those challenges head-on.
In 2012, a doctoral student named Sarah Shear and three of her colleagues at the University of Missouri wanted to understand how US history curriculums across the country depicted Native Americans. For two years, the four students pored over more than 2,000 K–12 state standards.
The results were shocking. Ninety percent of the texts taught were written by non-Natives. Only half the states actually cared to mention the name of a specific tribe. And 87 percent of all the curriculums had erased or forgotten indigenous people after the year 1900.
"It makes some big statements about the state of K–12 social studies and how indigenous people have been relegated to a very distant past," Shear says. Versions of the pre-1900 history weren't much better. Even when Native peoples were mentioned, the impacts of manifest destiny "were very whitewashed."
If Washington kids aren't learning about Native Americans after 1900, they're missing the part about forcing children into abusive, militarized boarding schools that attempted to erase Native cultures, religions, and languages from the United States. They're also missing that it happened in their backyards. In 1909, the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition world's fair, held on the University of Washington campus, put Tulalip students on display for gawking whites.
To this day, some elders who lived through the boarding-school era still don't like crossing the threshold of public schools, Jerry Price, a social studies teacher in the Yelm School District and one of the creators of the curriculum, says. "There's a lot of mistrust and it's rightfully so," Price adds. "[Families have] had a lot of hurt and they don't want their kids to go through those same experiences."
Then there's the Native American achievement gap. In 2011, President Obama signed an executive order declaring the "urgent need" to improve educational outcomes for American Indian and Alaska Native kids dropping out of high school at disproportionate rates. In 2012, less than half of the low-income American Indian and Alaskan Native kids enrolled in Washington public schools met the state's fourth- and seventh-grade reading, math, and writing standards, according to the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction. American Indian kids are consistently failing more often than their white, Asian, Asian-Pacific Islander, black, and Hispanic peers.
A growing field of research supports the idea that culturally relevant teaching can help close the achievement gap. And non-Native kids are hungry for more than what's glossed over in their textbooks, too. "When we start these lessons, their eyes are widely open," Brown says. "And, 'Why didn't we know this? How is it that I've reached the eighth grade and haven't heard any of this?'"
Taking a look at Seattle Public Schools' potential eighth-grade social studies textbook offerings for the next year provides some clues as to why kids might feel this way. In one, Holt McDougal's United States History: Beginnings to 1914, 10,000 years of history in the Pacific Northwest before the arrival of Europeans is condensed into a single paragraph on totem poles and potlatches. The same book's section on Christopher Columbus fails to mention the fact that he enslaved Arawak Indians and forced teenagers and adults above the age of 14 to mine gold, cutting off their hands if they failed to deliver. Nor does it note that brutal slave labor took thousands of lives.
With most general US history textbooks, you can forget about anything explaining precisely how American Indians agreed to give up the vast majority of their lands to the US government in exchange for the preservation of certain timeless rights, like hunting and fishing in their accustomed areas. Textbooks published in states like Texas tend to cast settling the West and the transcontinental railroad in a holy glow of "manifest destiny" rather than ugly conquests that regularly violated treaties and forced indigenous people off their land. No mention is made of the urban Indians who helped build places like Seattle, or of the American Indian Movement in the '70s, or how cultural centers like Daybreak Star came to be. In these textbooks, contemporary indigenous people—like those currently living in cities—simply don't exist.
"Middle-school kids, unlike any other brand of animal, have an intense, fierce sense of fairness," Brown says. "I haven't in my classroom experienced or witnessed the white guilt that some people have experienced. But it is more along the lines of 'I can't believe that that happened,' and 'What do we do now?'"
It's taken a long time to get more Washington public school kids asking those kinds of questions. Back in 2004, state senator John McCoy (D-Tulalip) started pushing for a mandatory tribal curriculum. By 2005, lawmakers were only willing to pass his House Bill 1495 if sponsors changed one word, "required," to "encouraged." Seventeen house Republicans and nine senate Republicans—largely from rural areas—voted against it anyway. Democrats were unanimously in favor of the measure in both houses. After its passage, only two school districts, Marysville and Fife, adopted the tribal sovereignty curriculum. In 2015, legislators successfully inserted the "required" language by passing a new bill. Twenty-two state representatives and seven state senators still voted against it, this time including a handful of non-rural Democrats.
"Now we're just in the beginning stages of 'required,'" Michael Vendiola, program supervisor for the Office of Native Education and enrolled member of the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community, says. "We're seeing a tremendous response. Folks are asking, 'What's the implementation plan?' 'How do we do this?' you know, so our fall schedule is pretty full. And folks are scrambling to get up to speed."
There's still much to be done. The tribal sovereignty website, indian-ed.org, is now a vast repository of resources for teachers, including recordings of oral history. But it's still not as polished or as consistent as many would like. (The website is down as I'm writing this piece.) And despite the fact that the amended law now requires the curriculum, it didn't attach any state money to the legislation. The $300,000 that's now behind the curriculum comes, in part, from the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI), which in 2008 freed up $20,000 from its internal funds to begin developing the curriculum, then added $50,000 the following year. Tribes themselves have contributed $147,000, and private organizations another $80,000. The Office of Native Education within OSPI provides ongoing support and in-kind contributions. But it's a shoestring budget compared to the $4.4 million effort in Montana (whose public-school student population adds up to less than a seventh of Washington State's).
Vendiola, also at the Chief Leschi training, crosses and uncrosses his arms when I ask him about the money. It's a challenge, he admits. But his office is also already doing a number of things to get the curriculum rolling, like developing partnerships with a number of local universities to integrate the curriculum into their teacher training.
And the law is on the books. At some point, this means all school districts will have teachers who integrate tribal sovereignty into their lessons and Common Core standards. I ask Vendiola what that means for future generations, or what society might look like when that becomes true.
Vendiola leans back in his seat and, for a few seconds, appears lost for words. The question is making him emotional, he tells me. "I think our Native youth have been so displaced in public education," he says. "They've had a lot of trials and tribulations. This isn't going to be the magical key that solves everything, but it certainly is a good step to empowering tribal communities."
Native kids could begin to see their own cultures valued and reflected back to them in new collaborations with the mainstream, Vendiola says. He cites the US Geological Survey's seven-year partnership with the Coast Salish Nation and Swinomish Indian Tribal Community, one that gathers water-quality data by hitching monitors to tribal canoes when they travel hundreds of miles between the United States and Canada. "The potential of this could be Native science. We don't call it that as indigenous people. We say, 'This is our way of knowing. This is how we were able to survive on this land. This is how we were able to be caretakers of this land.' I'm really excited for that."
When I ask Brown the same question about the future, she also takes a pause. "The next generation is going to be... oh, god." Her voice begins to break. "Our Indian kids are going to be...
"Proud," Brown finally says. "I feel like they need it. And able to demonstrate and share their brilliance and expertise."
Feelings other than pride could surface when teaching the curriculum, too. The 364-page training binder for the tribal sovereignty curriculum has a section on "resistance." Brown says you can see resistance, sometimes, in teachers' body language, but Price says he hasn't experienced too much overt hostility. (This is the first year he's gotten an angry letter about it from a parent, for example.)
That said, if recent fights over racist mascots and Columbus Day in Seattle provide any context, there is a strong possibility that confronting ignorance could get ugly. When Native students launched a campaign to urge West Seattle High School's athletics teams to drop their geographically inept Plains Indian mascot and "Indians" nickname in 2002, the alumni association predicted graduates would cut off sponsorships. "Local businesses were posting, 'We're Indians forever,'" Matt Remle, Native American liaison for the Office of Indian Education in the Marysville School District, remembers. More than a decade later, Remle, who is Lakota, presented the Seattle City Council with a resolution to replace Columbus Day with Indigenous People's Day. His inbox filled up with hate mail, and at one hearing, a group of angry Columbus Day supporters cornered him and compared Sitting Bull to Hitler. So, at the Chief Leschi training, teachers gently practice confrontation.
A beaming middle-aged white woman in a green sleeveless vest and pink tortoiseshell reading glasses turns to me and introduces herself as Kathy Albert, a certified teacher of Native education. We flip to the section on resistance from non-Indian parents. It has questions like "Why are you singling out one ethnic group over another?" and "Why can't my student just have traditional history class just like I had in school?" and "This is revisionist history!" and "You're making my child feel guilty." I dutifully read the gist of all of these to Albert, who always responds first with a smile and "Thank you for asking that question," or "I'm so glad you recognize that."
I ask Albert why teaching the concept of "tribal sovereignty" is important at all. "If we're treating tribes as sovereign nations, we're treating them as equals," she says. "If we are not treating the tribes as sovereign nations, we don't have to respect any of their rights."
"Okay?" she asks, eyeing me over her pink frames. I nod. We move on.
"I'm nervous," Brown tells me later. "I'm nervous about how it's going to be received. I always worry that it's not good enough. I always worry that people will find a reason someway, somewhere, somehow to not use it, and I haven't gotten over that yet. Now that it's required, I still haven't gotten over that."
It's clear how much Brown has invested herself in the curriculum. For a segment on the boarding-school era, she personally interviewed a surviving elder, her grandmother. Brown also included a poem about repatriating tribal identity, one she modified so that it serves as an example of repatriating her own identity.
And the curriculum aims to get kids personally invested, too. One of the lesson plans on "sacred spaces" asks that students draw pictures of places that are special to them. A teacher then secretly makes a deal with a student about what happens next: The teacher will compliment a sacred space, pick up the student's picture, and start ripping off pieces while the rest of the class watches on in shock.
The teachers who attended the session at Chief Leschi already know these lesson plans; many of them are Native, and they're familiar faces to the curriculum's creators. Jerry Price, the curriculum cocreator, recognizes that a lot of what he's doing at Chief Leschi is still serving "the true believer aspect." The teachers there want to know about the implementation timeline and are eager to get their districts involved. How widespread that sentiment will be, particularly in rural parts of the state represented by lawmakers who have voted against this curriculum, remains to be seen.
Price is okay with starting out small and simple, though. "I think it's going to get really interesting next year," he says.