From ‘Encouraged’ to ‘Mandatory’: Schools Must Teach Native History in Washington
There are 29 federally recognized indigenous nations in Washington State. They have treaties with the United States—they have their own governments, jurisdictions, and economies. They have treaty rights and responsibilities in their historical territories.
Chances are, though, most students in Washington State don’t know much about all that, which is about to change.
On May 8, Gov. Jay Inslee signed Senate Bill 5433 into law, making it mandatory for schools in his state to educate students about the history and governance of the indigenous nations in Washington. Previously, under HB 1495, which became law in 2005, schools were only “encouraged” to do so.
As part of HB 1495, the state’s Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction worked with Native Nations to develop a curriculum, “Since Time Immemorial: Tribal Sovereignty in Washington State,” which was made available for free to school districts. But as late as December 2014, state Sen. John McCoy, D-Tulalip, estimated that only 30 percent of school districts in Washington State had chosen to use the curriculum.
McCoy, a citizen of the Tulalip Tribes and author of SB 5433 and HB 1495, said he couldn’t get support 10 years ago for mandatory instruction. The difference today: More understanding of the potential results from an accurate teaching of the state’s history.
McCoy and other supporters of SB 5433 say Native students will be more engaged in education. There will be more understanding and relationship-building between people of different cultures. And students who will go on to become leaders in their communities will understand sovereignty and the authority of the Native Nations with which they will engage.
“This is a tremendous opportunity to learn about the tribal people of the Northwest on a level that is unprecedented,” said Michael Vendiola, program supervisor in the state Superintendent of Public Instruction’s Office of Native Education, and a citizen of the Swinomish Tribe. “What that opportunity brings is the ability to build relationships and understand more of the true history of Washington State. For tribal communities, it will be empowering in the educational system to have their culture, government, and history presented in the classroom.”
Proponents say SB 5433 will also give balance to history instruction, which has often ignored the state’s indigenous history. It’s not just a problem in Washington State. A two-year study by Sarah Shear, associate professor of social studies education at Pennsylvania State University in Altoona, revealed that most students in all 50 states are graduating from high school without even basic knowledge of contemporary Native challenges or cultures.
Students are taught “nothing about treaties, land rights, water rights, nothing about the fact that tribes are still fighting to be recognized and determine sovereignty,” Shear told ICTMN.
“Since Time Immemorial,” is comprehensive yet flexible—it’s designed so teachers can begin where they are most comfortable in their ability to teach the subject. The website provides curriculum for elementary, middle and high school grades, resources, expected outcomes, and teacher-support documents and videos.
McCoy said some school districts may have hesitated in implementing the curriculum because they were wary of potential costs. The state Office of Financial Management laid those concerns to rest, reporting in its analysis of SB 5433 that there would be no financial impact. “This [bill] requires districts to use the curriculum developed and made available free of charge by OSPI,” the agency reported.
In addition to the curriculum being made available free online, the state’s Office of Native Education provides free training and at least two universities provide free training online.
The passage of SB 5433 is a sign of political progress as well. It had broad bipartisan support; it was approved 42-7 by the Republican-majority Senate and 76-22 by the Democratic-majority House. Of 16 co-sponsors, five were Republicans, including Senate President Pro Tem Pam Roach, R-Auburn.
“We do have a rich, solid history in the state,” McCoy said in an earlier interview. “And it should be taught.”
Matt Remle, Lakota, Native American liaison at Marysville-Pilchuck High School near Tulalip, said teachers in his district—which voluntarily adopted “Since Time Immemorial” in 2014—were “initially hesitant” about teaching the curriculum, “not because they didn’t want to teach it, but because they were afraid of getting something wrong. Now, I’m hearing from teachers about how easy and fun it is. They’re giving some anecdotal feedback—‘My students are more engaged, they are seeing themselves in the curriculum.’ That’s a good outcome.”
He added, “One teacher was talking about doing a unit on Celilo Falls, and some students had family from that area. They got excited about it. It prompted them to want to talk to their family about that history.”
Remle is seeing Native students who are more engaged, and teachers who are more confident in using the curriculum. “There’s a sense of pride too, that our district adopted this core curriculum before it [became mandatory]. The teachers are saying, ‘All right, we were able to get ahead of the curve.’”
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