May 5, 2022
Tribal sovereignty education comes—slowly—to school curriculum
Sarah Reeves

The tribally endorsed, state-mandated curriculum”Since Time Immemorial” on tribal sovereignty and treaty rights is gradually making its way into public school classrooms across the state, as relationships between school districts and tribes continue to develop. Marking Treaty Day, a Children of the Setting Sun Productions video, provides perspective on the Point Elliott Treaty and its acknowledgment of those rights. (Image courtesy Children of the Setting Sun Productions)

May 5, 2022
Tribal sovereignty education comes—slowly—to school curriculum
Sarah Reeves

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“There are 29 federally recognized tribes in Washington state. Each of these tribes is a sovereign nation. Learning what this means … is crucial for all students,” said Denise Crowe, Education Program Manager for the Samish Indian Nation. 

Washington’s public school students learn how to engage with their local, state, and federal governments as citizens and as future leaders. But only recently have they started to learn about tribal governments, too. 

“I spend a lot of time educating my colleagues how to work with tribes, what a sovereign nation is, what treaty rights are …. It’s not intentional, it was just never taught to them,” said Rep. Debra Lekanoff (D-Bow). Lekanoff is the only Native American currently serving in the state legislature. 

Efforts are ongoing to improve tribal sovereignty education in Washington schools, namely by incorporating the state-mandated, tribally endorsed curriculum “Since Time Immemorial: Tribal Sovereignty in Washington State” (STI)

Relationships make it happen 

The slow-but-steady pace of STI implementation does not come as a surprise to those moving this work forward. Success depends on strong relationships between districts and tribes—relationships that, in many cases, had not previously existed. 

The current lack of tribal sovereignty education, plus misinformation perpetuated by the curriculum being taught, harms tribal and nontribal students and communities alike. In one case, a student recognized misinformation shared with her class about ceremonial potlatches. 

“It’s a festivity, is how the teachers were teaching it,” recalled Lekanoff. “The little girl who comes home is eight years old and she knows that’s not the purpose of potlatch. So she has a conversation with her family, goes back and teaches the teacher: it’s not a festivity … it’s a very ceremonial and sacred time for Native Americans.” 

“We need to acknowledge that our Western schools were not designed to serve American Indian and Alaska Native people. In fact, our history with boarding schools places us in opposition. So we’re needing to do that healing,” said Laura Lynn, Program Supervisor at the Office of Native Education (ONE) in the state Office of Public Instruction (OSPI).

Relationships provide the foundation for healing and create inclusive learning environments that prevent misinformation, she noted. 

“To have the history of your people and your family, your elders and your ancestors included in a respectful and humble way opens those spaces for engagement, for connection. That’s at the heart of what we’re seeking for our students,” Lynn said. “When we lift up [tribal sovereignty], actually protect Native American rights, [we] understand that protecting those rights comes to a benefit for all peoples.”

For example, U.S. District Court Judge George Boldt’s 1974 ruling to uphold treaty rights secured for tribes 50% of the available salmon harvest. It’s because of this decision and the resulting co-management of salmon that we still have salmon today, Lynn said. 

[Also see “Understanding the Importance of the Point Elliott Treaty,” Salish Current, Jan. 28, 2021]

While relationship-building continues, many educators have pulled from the site to improve their current lesson plans. 

Phil Carter, who teaches history at Orcas Island Middle School, has used STI for the last seven years, crediting the “accessible and clearly laid out” website. 

Identity images for the ONE program feature Indigenous artwork.

Carter is attending an STI training this month. He has built his own connections with the Burke Museum in Seattle and the Orcas Island Historical Museum, which he said is “busily working on more material culture of the Lummi Nation” that he hopes to incorporate before the end of the year. 

A series of bills

“Since Time Immemorial” was first developed after the passage of Senate Bill 1495 in 2005. The bill’s wording “encouraged” Washington school directors to work with tribes and “consider including information on the culture, history, and government of the American Indian peoples.” 

However, it prompted only a few districts and schools to teach about local tribes. Ten years later, the legislature passed Senate Bill 5433 requiring STI in public schools.

“[SB5433] passed both chambers with very strong bipartisan support, with the understanding that it would teach the youngest generation their region’s tribal history and culture, and the legal framework for treaty rights, tribal sovereignty and modern-day Indian governance structures,” said Sen. Christine Rolfes (D-Kitsap), who co-sponsored the 2015 bill. 

She said the bill intended “to help Native American children be better represented in their school’s curriculum and [to] be an important step toward the generational elimination of systemic racism.” 

SB5433 requires districts to incorporate STI as they update their social studies curriculum. Today, the Anacortes School District is working with the Samish Indian Nation to proactively design place-based curriculum, rather than choosing new materials first and adding STI later. 

Becky Clifford, Assistant Superintendent with the Anacortes district, said the forward-thinking approach allows for “deeper practices upfront.” 

“The Samish Nation has a long history of work with the Anacortes School District,” Crowe said. Together they have drafted a memorandum of understanding to guide their government-to-government relationship. 

“Learning is happening at every level,” Crowe said. “There is a holistic approach that includes active engagement with administration, teachers and students. We are all investing in the long view, and Samish Nation is deeply committed to the work.”

The work, Clifford said, is powerful: “Although slow and steady, it truly has a substantial impact.”

Other districts within traditional Samish territory include those in the San Juan Islands, Oak Harbor and Burlington, and Crowe said the nation’s government-to-government relationship with each “is at a different stage.”  

Teachers training teachers 

In 2018, Senate Bill 5028 required educator prep courses to include tribal sovereignty curriculum. Graduate students in secondary social studies and elementary education studies at Western Washington University are now required to take “Tribal Sovereignty and Washington History,” which means they’ve already been introduced to STI by the time they enter service. 

ONE continues to expand trainings. During the fall/winter quarter of 2019, staff trained 281 participants and held 6 “training of trainer” sessions to empower educators to help each other implement STI. 

After schools closed due to COVID-19, ONE put training resources and webinars online and nearly 1,600 educators participated between May and June 2020. A network of tribal curriculum writers continues to meet every quarter “to share best practices… strengthen tribal-district collaborations, and support systemic implementation,” ONE reported.

According to Lynn, most Whatcom, Skagit and San Juan County school districts have educators participating. 

Funding and other challenges

In its 2020 State of Native Education report to the legislature, ONE cited lack of funding as a barrier to widespread implementation. 

Funding wasn’t built into SB5433—districts and schools use basic education dollars or professional development dollars to implement STI. These are the same funds used to pay substitute teachers, pay staff for time worked outside of the school hours and cover costs for other professional training, Clifford said. 

“Samish Nation is providing the budget support for staff time devoted to this work,” said Crowe. “Staff time and funding support are limited, both for tribes and for districts.” 

School staff are also navigating the ongoing pandemic, and must prioritize the health and safety of their students.

“Because of COVID, asking the school districts to do one more thing, and teachers, is very challenging,” Lekanoff said. “It’s not that it’s not valuable, but what more can we ask of them during this time?”

Lack of data is another key barrier to understanding what’s working and what’s not. 

“In the legislation, there is not a provision made for the agency to actually [monitor] implementation,” Lynn said. “We of course have relationships, so we know that implementation is happening. But if you were to ask me to give you information on all 295 school districts, I wouldn’t be able to give you accurate information about the implementation.” 

Next steps: deadlines, more support

Several barriers are addressed in Senate Bill 5161, which was introduced in 2021. The bill directs the OSPI to develop a method of monitoring implementation and requires that tribal sovereignty be added to administrator prep programs. 

Perhaps most notably, it imposes a deadline for implementation of Sept. 1, 2023. 

Supporters of SB 5161 argue that accurate tribal sovereignty curriculum “is an issue of equity.” But will the bill’s provisions promote more widespread implementation?

SB 5161 “uplifts the urgency of this work, because we know that social studies curriculums, because of budgetary and other curricular priorities, often get pushed back,” Lynn said. 

The proposed legislation, like its predecessors, does not include funding. It was reintroduced this year but remains off the Senate floor calendar. 

As chair of the state’s Tribal Relations Committee, Lekanoff is exploring ways that the committee could pick up more of the curriculum work and remove barriers.  

Open to all

“Generations from now, we want all governing bodies to better work together,” Lekanoff said. “We’re taught federal government in public school, state law, local, but you have to understand tribal if you’re truly going to be a partner to build policies together, and build a better place for everyone to call home.”

Anyone can help promote tribal sovereignty education by first learning it themselves. STI materials and ONE trainings, while designed for school staff, are open to the public, Lynn said. They are also aligned with state standards for social studies, English language arts, environmental education and social emotional learning. 

“We have community-based organizations participating all the time,” Lynn said. “Librarians have always been a part of this work and continue to be. Museums join us, environmental organizations join us, organizations serving youth join us. There’s opportunity for wherever we are within community spaces to support community learning.”

— Reported by Sarah Reeves

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