Native Students Need Native Approaches to Curriculum

Rigorous multicultural curriculum is a must for any effective classroom. Yet, if it’s so effective, why has our Native American achievement gap remained nearly unchanged for a hundred years? Native students aren’t struggling entirely because of the curricula; they are struggling because of the pedagogy. European-style education is still bent on assimilating our Native learning styles to that of a dominant culture. Our poor statistics are evidence that we are still fighting oppression in the education system. Multicultural curriculum is necessary but it only modifies the means by which our Native students are assimilated.

Take for example a science curriculum combining watershed study and Native American ties with salmon. A curriculum makes generalizations even when written with excellent intent. This example assumes all Natives share a mystical connection with nature. Traditionally, we are connected, but not in the over-represented manner in which it is often portrayed. It assumes all Natives have land to be connected with—many do not. Statistically 75 percent of Natives are non-reservation and may have little contact with their natural or cultural environment. Even the term, “urban Indian” implies disconnectedness.

Curriculum assumes all Natives are equally engaged from learning about other tribes. Native experience includes many commonalities; however, Native peoples are often vastly different. A Seneca learning about the Hopi may be just as engaged as if she were learning about the Celts. Expecting Native students to be engaged is implicitly saying, “Hey you should like this, you’re all the same.”

Curriculum makes a false assumption that all Natives know a great deal about their culture. Thanks to genocide, boarding schools, termination, and relocation even tribal school students often have extremely low levels of cultural knowledge. Students who do have higher levels of cultural knowledge have higher legitimacy expectations. Many Native people, especially students, won’t engage unless they feel the person discussing their particular culture has a legitimate right to do so. A workshop or webinar doesn’t make legitimate cultural delegates. Being an active participant in a Native community or being understanding and sympathetic to the challenges of Native life builds legitimacy.

A curriculum is approachable because it is easily accessible to non-Natives. A little time searching the web can provide historically accurate and culturally relevant information for curriculum design. Understanding how Natives learn requires either being Native or the professional and personal commitment to the culture. Pedagogy is difficult to address because it can imply culpability and often requires an honest reflection on one’s cultural bias. Most teachers are willing to print a multicultural curriculum from the Internet but lack time, commitment, ability, or resources to teach multiculturally.

Native students need Native approaches in pedagogy. Multicultural curriculum fails to budge education statistics for Native youth under a European-style education system. Our cultural struggle survives in the way we learn. Our low scores are testaments to our defiance against assimilation. If teachers want to create a truly transformative learning experience, teach us culturally and all else will follow. Let us move forward improving how we teach culture but let us never lose our commitment to teaching culturally.

Jerad Koepp and Jason Medina are certified teachers in Washington State. Medina is a career and technical education teacher and Koepp is a middle and high school social studies and history teacher. Both have committed their careers to Indian education.