The Mountain West Brings Native Lessons To The Classroom

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The United States has a grim history when it comes to our indigenous people, from the multiple massacres of native men, women and children to Indian boarding schools where native children were taken from their families and in many cases physically and sexually abused. For the most part, this history isn’t taught in our public schools; neither is indigenous culture. But that’s changing, and the Mountain West is on board.

At a Colorado library recently, its Department of Education unveiled a brand new set of lessons for 4th graders.

The optional curriculum was written and approved by the the state’s two federally recognized tribes – the Southern Ute and the Ute Mountain Ute. It covers the gamut from the history of Indian Boarding Schools to arts, language and tribal governance.

Felicia Alvarez applauded the move. She’s a local parent and a member of the Eastern Shoshone tribe. She said children need to know these things.

Felicia Alvarez (front left), of the Eastern Shoshone tribe, examines a page from one of the new lessons.
Credit Ali Budner / 91.5 KRCC
Felicia Alvarez (front left), of the Eastern Shoshone tribe, examines a page from one of the new lessons.

“I’ve always felt that within our education system, if we were to include true historical facts that children would be much more educated and there would be less ignorance towards our people.”

Another parent was listening intently to the new lesson plans. Monycka Snowbird is Anishinabe, an indigenous group from around the Great Lakes area. Her nation doesn’t have any traditional ties to Colorado, but she said she’s lived in the Colorado Springs area for 25 years. Her kids were all born and raised here.

Snowbird said her kids were lucky to have teachers who were willing to incorporate native history, but she said it was concerned parents like her who had to provide the learning materials themselves. And that’s a burden on parents.

“So this is taking some of that burden away,” she said. “So that’s huge.”

Snowbird welcomes the curriculum but worries that it is still falling short. “Like I read the curriculum on Thanksgiving,” she said, “and it didn’t talk about really any of the horrific things that happened around that time, which is why my family doesn’t celebrate Thanksgiving.”

Ernest House Jr., former head of the Colorado Commission on Indian Affairs, said those concerns have been growing throughout Indian country.

Ernest House Jr.
Credit Courtesy of Ernest House Jr.
Ernest House Jr.

House is a member of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe and he oversaw the curriculum’s development. He understands Snowbird’s criticisms, but says the decision to keep the lessons free of too much violent history was intentional. Because it’s for 4th graders. That’s when Colorado schools start to focus on teaching the state’s history.  

House said the tougher content could maybe be introduced in future curricula for later grades.  He said tribal representatives and education specialists spent a long time reviewing what to include in this version “and we decided there would be this first step into this guide.”

Meanwhile, Montana is way ahead of that first step.

Mike Jetty, Indian Education specialist for the state of Montana, said his state is unique. “We're the only state in the country that has it written into our state constitution it will teach about American Indians,” Jetty said. “And that happened in 1972.”

Mike Jetty, Indian Education Specialist for the State of Montana
Credit Mike Jetty
Mike Jetty, Indian Education Specialist for the State of Montana

Jetty is a member of the Spirit Lake Dakota nation and a Turtle Mountain Chippewa descendant.

He said getting the curriculum and Indian education standards in place took decades but now.. not only is it in the constitution, the program is funded by the state government. So they can afford to reach all schools and all ages.

“We're trying to hit every grade,” Jetty said. “You have a grade four science standard we have references to Native American science. You have a grade 8 Social Studies standard, we have tribal government sovereignty written into that.”

He said it’s true some of this history can be painful and violent.  

“But at the same time,” he said, “I think kids can handle stuff that we don't you know give em credit for. It depends on how you present it and how that teacher does it.”

Bottomline he said it’s good for non-native and native students alike to understand our history. Ernest House Jr. agrees.

“No matter what tribe you talk to out of 573 federally recognized tribes,” House said, “tribes want people just general population to know about them. We want them to know about our culture our history that we're still here. We're not a vanishing race. And there’s so much that our culture that our tribal nations and our languages have provided to everyday life today.”

The Mountain West is listening. Utah has had its own curriculum on native tribes since 2009.  But like Colorado it isn’t mandatory. Meanwhile, Wyoming will roll out its new academic standards in 2021 requiring the inclusion of indigenous history and culture at all grade levels.

House says a thorough and honest understanding of our history is crucial.  

“We won't be able to start addressing much bigger larger needs,” he said, “unless people have a baseline of the American Indian history and the respect for that culture.”

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, Yellowstone Public Radio in Montana, KUER in Salt Lake City and KRCC and KUNC in Colorado.