Tribal history, culture get space in the classroom

Associated Press

PORT ANGELES, Wash. (AP) — You can almost hear the splash of paddles hitting the water, an eagle call overhead and the crash of whales breaching as Jamie Valadez tells her high school students about paddling through the inland waters of the Puget Sound, reliving the tribal journeys of ages past.

Valadez passes around handmade buttons, scarves and other commemorative gifts, and shares photos of canoes gliding through the natural beauty of the Pacific Northwest. She answers questions and talks in vivid detail about her experiences on the water, like the time a seal attacked a canoe.

Valadez is a member of the Klallam tribe, which has lived along the nearby Elwha River for centuries. Canoeing was central to the culture of the Klallam, who were expert canoe makers and relied on the boats for travel and fishing.

Valadez conveys this to her students not by reciting facts but by bringing history to life. And she says nearly the same experience can take place in any school in the U.S., using the ready-made Native American curricula available on the Web for interested teachers.

While a growing number of states are encouraging schools to weave American Indian history and culture into their curriculum, Washington is one of a handful that requires it. Its state education office has created an extensive online library of information about local and regional tribes to help make that happen.

Similar resources have been created by other states, including Montana, Wisconsin, Arizona, New Mexico, Oklahoma and South Dakota. The efforts are designed to recognize Native American history as an important element of state and local history, and to offer teachers a way to localize and enliven their American history classes.

Valadez's students — native and nonnative — say the Indian curriculum makes their social studies class more interesting and relevant, and they especially enjoy learning about the history of their own community.

"I look forward to coming to this class every day," says Takara Andrus, 17. "People say this is a boring old town, but it has a rich history."

Denny Hurtado, director of the Washington state office of Indian Education, says his state's new curriculum goes beyond Pocahantas and General George A. Custer to share a deeper Native American story with students, and to help restore native pride. About 2.6 percent of Washington's students identify themselves as American Indian or Pacific Islander.

Hurtado says the curriculum also helps to combat negative stereotypes and to create coursework that is culturally relevant and appeals to Indian students, including many who lag behind their peers in academic achievement.

The Washington tribal education website offers lesson plans for various age groups and gives teachers the option of spending a few hours or several months on the topic. It also offers suggestions to engage local tribes in their studies.

Washington is not the first state to create a Native American curriculum.

Since 1999, the Montana Legislature has required all public schools to include instruction on the history and culture of the state's Indian tribes, strengthening a 1972 provision in the Montana Constitution. In 2005, the results of a general school funding lawsuit put dollars behind the mandate, along with other education reforms.

Mike Jetty, a member of the Spirit Lake Dakota Nation, runs the Montana Indian education program. He says he has traveled across the West and fielded phone calls from as far away as the United Nations asking to copy or borrow the program's ideas.

He spends a lot of time working with teachers to figure out ways to infuse tribal knowledge and history into their classrooms.

"We're taking a long-range approach," Jetty says. "We know it took a long time for the curriculum to get this way and it's going to take a long way to change it."

Montana works toward its goal of seeing more native perspectives and voices in public school classrooms by providing the materials to make it happen, such as videos of elders talking about their experiences in boarding school.

Hurtado, Washington's Indian Education director, says the committee creating his state's curriculum did whatever it could to make it easy for teachers to use, and flexibility was key — from a 45-minute discussion to a semester-long class.

"We took out all the excuses," he says.

Hurtado wants to encourage teachers to work closely with local tribes and Indian education programs and invite tribal members to speak to their students.

"It's about developing relationships first," Hurtado says.

Valadez, who has been piloting the new Washington curriculum in her history classroom for several years, says her students have grown to appreciate both local history and Indian stories and can relate better to some of the news of today that pertains to area tribes. In addition to her work at the high school, Valadez also manages Klallam language classes for adults, preschoolers and other school-aged children.

She has spent a lot of time helping her students understand one of the state's biggest Indian stories of recent years, when state construction crews inadvertently unearthed human remains from a Native American site dating back 2,700 years. The ancient village was found in Port Angeles.

"Issues in the paper every day are hard to understand unless you know the history," Valadez says.