One of the key takeaways from “Becoming Visible” — a recent report that analyzes state efforts to bring high-quality Native American educational content into all K–12 classrooms across the U.S. — is that transformational efforts are necessary to correct false narratives about Native Americans. While almost 90% of states surveyed said they have efforts underway to improve the quality of and access to Native American curriculum, there is still work that remains to be done.
This recognition is important, as is demonstrating a public commitment to establishing statewide initiatives — through legislation or other means — that require the development and use of curricular materials that correct false narratives about Native Americans. Similarly, writing or updating curricula is simply the beginning; the long-term goal of “Becoming Visible” is to inspire all involved parties — including state education agencies, tribes and tribal organizations — to advocate for updated public policies that ultimately lead to systemic change. In doing so, stakeholder groups can consider taking the following actions.
Provide funding. Writing accurate, authentic curricula about the Native American experience requires a significant public investment of human capital and financial resources. For example, “Becoming Visible” found that among the nine states that answered “yes” when asked whether they provided “any funding to implement Native American education curricula,” eight were dedicating more than $100,000 to this effort.
Commit to collaboration. With a solid fiscal foundation in place, states can take the next important step of partnering with tribes, nonprofits and community organizations to write curricula. This goes beyond simply getting input. Rather, it involves an ongoing dialogue with tribal representatives to ensure teaching tools are accurate and authentic. To that end, Native Americans and tribes should have the opportunity to develop tribally specific material that truly tells their story and integrates the inherent value of Native ways of knowing and being, which includes both what and how we teach.
Set teachers up for success. Building a framework for training educators may involve engaging teachers in self-reflection through collaborative professional development; if educators did not have access to high-quality Native American educational content when they were in school, it can be challenging and make them feel vulnerable. Additionally, high-quality Native American educational content is full of nuance and complexity, which further underscores the importance of properly coaching and training teachers before they introduce the new curriculum into their classroom.
Emphasize cross-curricular — and complementary — options. “Becoming Visible” found that 82% of the states responding to the survey (23 of 28) reported including Native American education in their state standards, primarily in social studies. This is a good starting point, but a great deal more content is available. Native American experiences and contributions can be taught in multiple subject areas, such as art, literature and science. Further, this content can complement what teachers are already teaching while ensuring students are meeting state standards. For example, if students are required to learn about primary source documents, a lesson plan could focus on a treaty between a sovereign tribal nation and the U.S. government.
Recognize the benefits for all students. Improving the quality of and access to Native American curriculum benefits all students. For nonnative students, it can lead to greater awareness and compassion. For native students, it can teach strength and resiliency, foster positive identity development and help uphold tribal sovereignty. It can also support academic success — which can make a big impact in the near term — and have a ripple effect at both the individual and community levels.
Simply stated, when all students know the correct narrative about Native Americans and learn the vital, unique and ongoing contributions of this country’s original inhabitants, there is greater understanding — and ultimately better outcomes for students, communities and our nation.