Tribal history curriculum gets boost

Ten years ago, state Sen. John McCoy, a Democrat and Tulalip tribal leader, introduced a bill to require more accurate school curriculum about Washington’s 29 federally recognized tribes. His bill called for closer relationships between local tribes and schools, and a telling of tribal history that included the tribes’ perspectives.

Opposition to this bill was fierce. School administrators and boards claimed it violated local control, that it would be an unfunded mandate, and that there was simply no room in school curriculum to add anything more. In the end, McCoy was forced to change the bill from requiring the changes he sought to simply encouraging them.

But during the last decade, McCoy and others — notably Denny Hurtado, the recently retired director of the Office of Native Education in the Office of the Superintendent for Public Education — have nudged, educated, and cajoled the public school system forward. They’ve found allies among educators, and opened peoples’ eyes to just how important a part of our society and economy tribes are. They have written and tested curriculum, held lots of workshops, and talked with hundreds of teachers, legislators and local leaders.

This year, they turned the tide. Both the House and the Senate recently passed identical bills that finally require rather than encourage schools to incorporate the history, culture and government of the nearest federally recognized Indian tribe or tribes into the social studies curriculum. The bills also specifically require schools to collaborate and create cultural exchanges to expand students’ knowledge about the tribes closest to their communities.

And they require that students learn about tribal government and history issues that are statewide in nature — including, of course, the long and heartbreaking twists and turns of conquest, treaties, forced removal of Indian children to boarding schools, and the more recent and inspiring renaissance of tribal culture, sovereign government, and civil rights.

It appears now that the Senate bill — Substitute House Bill 5433, sponsored by Republican Sen. Steve Litzow — is poised for final passage in the House, and Sen. McCoy sees no obstacle in its path.

The bill, which deserves swift passage and the governor’s signature, will help overcome a century or more of misinformation about tribal history, and counter the longstanding tendency of school curriculum to focus more on the Navajo or the Comanches than the tribes in our communities, whose kids are in our schools.

Schools don’t have to spend a lot of money to make the required changes; the bill requires that schools use the free, online “Since Time Immemorial” curriculum developed by OSPI under Hurtado’s leadership. And they don’t have to do this immediately; they can make the changes when they do periodic reviews and updates to their social studies programs.

It is profoundly encouraging to see progress toward the day when public schools teach a full, inclusive and truthful telling of American history. Such a history can’t be written only by the victors; it has to include the diverse perspectives of all the peoples who have been marginalized, stereotyped, and cheated of their most basic rights.

A decade’s worth of work by tribal leaders, educators, legislators and activists has shown that having difficult conversations about issues of race, history and culture is necessary and productive.