Excitement Grows For Culturally Inclusive Indigenous Curriculum For Oregon Schools

Mar 15, 2019

Dozens of 4th grade 4J school district teachers listen as Leilani Sabzalian discusses ways teachers can bring in contemporary Indigenous issues into the classroom.
Credit Melorie Begay/KLCC News

Oregon educators and tribes are excited about new state mandated curriculum as its being developed. It fulfills Senate Bill 13, which requires the state’s department of education to create course material that’s culturally inclusive and relevant to Oregon’s 9 federally recognized tribes. 

At Spencer Butte middle school in Eugene, U.S. History teacher Shanna Davis wanders around her 8th grade classroom. She’s helping students adapt song lyrics to different American colonies with an emphasis on Native tribes. Davis tries to include Indigenous history in her lessons because she says available curriculum is questionable.

8th grade U.S. History teacher, Shanna Davis, helps a student with his project.
Credit Melorie Begay/KLCC News

DAVIS: “My textbook says about Pocahontas, ‘for a year Pocahontas remained a prisoner, but a willing and curious one. I don’t know how you’re a willing and curious prisoner’ and I don’t understand why we would want eighth graders to have this idea of what Pocahontas was.”

The 4J school district doesn’t require teachers to use provided material, she says, but not every teacher has the time or resources to make their own.

DAVIS: “In teaching social studies, you can go one of two tracks, one you can teach what’s in the textbook which is not historically accurate or culturally responsible at all, or you can spend hundreds of hours figuring out all the stuff for you.”

She’s thrilled that teachers will have curriculum that Oregon tribes have approved of, Davis says, and that more teachers will be able to confidently use them in their classrooms.

At the moment there are only a handful of lesson plans from Oregon's 9 federally recognized tribes. Curriculum specialist, Mercedes Jones, a citizen of the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde, says classrooms are filled with generalizations that often promote Hollywood Indian stereotypes.

A slide from an introduction video of the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde's free curriculum.
Credit Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde Website

JONES: “We have a lot of kids, or even adults who still think that Pacific Northwest tribes lived in tipis when we never did, that we hunted buffalo when we also did not do any of that.”

The Grand Ronde started developing their own lesson plans a few years ago, she says, they wanted to move away from damage based curriculum.

JONES: “We come at it with an approach of instead of focusing on the oppressor, if you will, of who was doing all of that damage, it’s focusing on the resiliency of the tribal communities.”

Jones says the tribe is invested in education and is piloting course material to supplement state mandated material.

Although Senate Bill 13 focuses on Indigenous perspectives in 4th, 8th and 10th grade history courses, the idea is for the lessons to go beyond Native Americans as a unit.

For Indigenous educators who’ve gone through Oregon’s school system, SB 13 is about righting a wrong.

University of Oregon assistant professor of Indigenous Studies Leilani Sabzalian. Sabzalian serves on the advisory council for Senate Bill 13.
Credit Melorie Begay/KLCC News

SABZALIAN: “My experience as a student with respect to Native issues was mostly one of silence.”

University of Oregon assistant professor Leilani Sabzalian studies Indigenous Education in public schools and serves on the advisory council.

SABZALIAN: “You move away from teaching about Indigenous people to really learning from Indigenous thought and analysis, and having that change how you might view environmental studies for example, what constitutes literature and the canon for example.”

Sabzalian, an Alutiiq Alaska Native, has kids of her own. She says she often has to counter miseducation they learn at school and SB 13 is a starting point to fixing this.

SABZALIAN: “I feel hopeful that this curriculum will afford Native children and communities and nations the respect and dignity that I think they deserve that I think there knowledge systems and histories deserve.”

Shandiin Garcia jokes with a table of teachers during a teach in session for 4th grade teachers in the 4J school district. Garcia is with Education Northwest, which is developing state mandated curriculum.
Credit Melorie Begay/KLCC News

Last fall, the Oregon Department of Education chose Education Northwest to create and distribute the curriculum. Shadiin Garcia is heading the effort. She says there’s a lot to consider as she works with both schools and tribes.

GARCIA: “How do you represent all of these topics in 45 lesson plans in six months? But that we’re going to hit some bumps along the way, that it isn’t perfect, but that our hearts are in the right place.”

Garcia, a Chicana and Laguna Pueblo, says it’s been challenging because there are a lot of moving parts, but in the end Oregon students will be more knowledgeable.

GARCIA: “I hope they understand the concept of sovereignty, I hope they understand that languages aren’t dead— I mean there are so many things that the very baseline is that we are here, we are alive, we are thriving, we are not disappearing.”

The curriculum is expected to be ready for schools this summer, Garcia says. The Oregon Office of Indian Education is asking for additional funding during this legislative session to expand to other grade levels.