Native Americans want you to know they’re more than a history unit

One of the main issues is that teachers teach native history as if Native Americans are extinct, according to Rachel Byington, former Title VII First Nations Instructional Resource Teacher at Madison Metropolitan School District and member of the Choctaw tribe of Oklahoma.

Image By: Max Homstad

Native Americans want you to know they’re more than a history unit

Paul Rykken has a classroom perspective unlike almost anyone else.

The social studies teacher has been a faculty member at Black River Falls High School since 1990, one year after Wisconsin wrote into law Act 31— three statutes that made it a requirement for state public schools to infuse Native American history into K-12 social studies curriculums.

But the student makeup of BRFHS is unique.

In the 2016-2017 school year, nearly 20 percent of BRFHS was Native American compared to 1.2 percent of the entire state public school system. For Rykken, that raises the stakes.

“What we’ve attempted to do here is make our curriculum more inclusive,” he said. “Fundamentally, the idea is to aim this at the non-Native audience for educational purposes but also so that the Native audience is seeing themselves within the curriculum.”

Due to his career longevity and experience, Rykken has had the opportunity to see how Act 31 is implemented across the state. To his dismay, the story is different.

“I often run into situations where schools haven’t done much at all,” he said.

The reason, says Rykken, is because often when schools don’t have a Native American population like BRHS, they don’t dive deep into an in-depth curriculum. Rykken says that’s unfortunate.

“Act 31 was really aimed at educating the non-Native audience of Wisconsin,” he said.

Rachel Byington, former Title VII First Nations Instructional Resource Teacher at Madison Metropolitan School District and member of the Choctaw tribe of Oklahoma, said even at MMSD these problems existed.

“I’ve heard some very unpleasant things,” said Byington, who added that as an aspiring teacher herself, she knows the pressure educators are under day-in and day-out. However, she feels “there’s a lot of need for improvement.”

According to Byington, one of the main issues is that teachers teach native history as if Native Americans are extinct. She recounted one time she presented to a group of elementary students.

“You could tell that the kids had not learned that Native people still are here, that we have, depending on how you look at it 11 or 12 tribes in Wisconsin, that there [are] tribal people all over the United States, all over the world,” Byington said.

The troubles Rykken and Byington have found are commonplace in Wisconsin as the small native population statewide means that many school districts aren’t going as in-depth as Black River Falls.

These struggles exist even in the state capital, where MMSD had a total of 80 American Indian students enrolled in the 2016-2017 school year, according to Department of Public Instruction data.

Since 2009, the total of enrolled American Indian students throughout the state has fallen by more than 23 percent. But that trend is even more pronounced in MMSD where, over that same period, the population has fallen by 60 percent.

However, state officials consider this as an inaccurate portrayal of district makeup, noting in 2010, students, who self-report their race, could begin to list themselves as multiple races or pacific islander.

“If you look at the number of students in the two or more races category, and apply some pretty simple math to the black student population and the American Indian student population, you can see that these kids are not disappearing, they’re reporting differently,” said Tom McCarthy, communications director for the DPI.

Byington says the data is hard to monitor because of self-reporting.

“It’s really hard when you’re looking at that data, to really get a sense of what’s happening with American Indian students,” she said, noting it’s not her job to tell people who their ancestors are.

Nehomah Thundercloud, director of education for the Ho-Chunk Nation, agreed that the additional categories and self-reporting could play a role but also noted the decline could be attributed to American Indian families withdrawing their students from the public school district.

“The cause for this scenario is usually from many experiences with discrimination or harassment from other students and in some cases, teachers and administration,” she said.

Thundercloud’s speculation highlights a sense of isolation and exclusion felt by many American Indian students, especially when teachers begin to work First Nations’ history into their curriculum.

She added many curriculums include a historical narrative of Native Americans that isn’t always correct.

“[Ho-Chunk Nation’s] goal is to share with schools that Act 31 is not just our history but our current events, and future endeavors,” she wrote. “Our teachings that have been around for centuries are still relevant to our culture and actions of today.”

Byington said these curriculums are a result of unpreparedness in how to actually teach native history.

“A lot of teachers aren’t being adequately prepared during their college time when they’re going to school to become a teacher,” she said.

As a result, often times Native American history is categorized as a unit, a term that Byington says is offensive in and of itself.

“How does that feel for a native student?” She asked. “If native students are feeling bad about what they’re learning about native people, what does that do to them as an individual?”

One of the statutes associated with Act 31 outlines that a teacher can’t receive certification unless they’ve received, “instruction in the study of minority group relations, including instruction in the history, culture and tribal sovereignty of the federally recognized American Indian tribes and bands located in this state.”

“There’s a...problem [in] that [Act 31] doesn’t exactly say what receiving instruction should look like,” said Byington, who added the lack of specific instruction can cause teachers to be unprepared in creating helpful lesson plans.

However some educators, like Rykken, have taken matters into their own hands.

Beginning in the late 1990s, Rykken along with a number of other colleagues began to restructure their social studies curriculum so that American Indian history was “infused” into the the general history topics students took between 8-12 grade.

Instead of American Indian history being a “unit” kids learn at one time, information is interwoven into the entire curriculum.

“For example, in a required U.S. history course, which our kids might take at grade nine, we bring the Native American perspective into that course when it is natural and where it fits,” says Rykken.

Black River Falls School District is one Thundercloud says the Ho-Chunk Nation has had great success with.

Another way schools combat isolation is through Title VII (soon to be Title VI) , a federal program that works to provide school support and extracurricular activities to Native American students. To qualify, students must either be registered with a tribe or have a first or second ancestor that was registered.

Byington ran Title VII programming at MMSD for years before leaving last year to pursue her PhD. Some of the work she did included leading the American Indian Science and Engineering Society and creating Unity, a program that focused more on spoken word and language arts activities.

She also would work with teachers who wanted assistance or for her to present a specific aspect of American Indian culture.

“My goal was to get the kids together to learn about their identity, who they are and build their native identity and also meet other kids like them,” she said. “Sometimes you’re fairly invisible in a big school and sometimes it can be a bit hard to find other native students.”

Another program that Byington and other Title VII coordinators incorporate is a native language class.

In the most recent budget, the DPI had requested an additional $402,000 in grant funding for a statewide tribal revitalization program, however that request was denied by Gov. Scott Walker. McCarthy said regardless, the department will keep asking.

Moving forward, Rykken says that a generation of high schoolers taking classes under Act 31, there is still more work to be done for the non-native audience to be aware and educated on the American Indian history around them.

“It is moving forward, it just doesn’t ever seem to be moving fast enough,” he said.

Byington emphasized that as teachers and facilitators work towards progress, learning how to teach a native course is vital

“You shouldn’t just learn the history, you should actually learn how to connect it to other things,” she said.

Rykken, who has been doing just that since the late 90’s, says each step his school has made has been a plus for the native students.

“Kids have to feel a sense of empowerment within the school.” he said. 

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