Pop culture artists team with educators for Native lessons

Sandra Hale Schulman

New series features six contemporary Native changemakers and details on their contributions to the U.S.

Sandra Hale Schulman
Special to Indian Country Today

With classroom education in disarray due to pandemic shutdowns, IllumiNative, a nonprofit founded by Crystal Echo Hawk, of Echo Hawk Consulting, and a group of respected Native artists including Bunky Echo-Hawk, Gregg Deal and Jared Yazzie have teamed up to provide art lesson plans for schools featuring influential Native personalities.

The plans create opportunities to showcase accurate and positive representations of Native peoples by illuminating contemporary Native art, voices, stories, issues and ideas in popular culture. 

The initiative finds them partnering with the National Indian Education Association and Amplifier, a group that draws from an impressive pool of artists to create digital education tools, lesson plans and resources about Native contemporary life. 

The plans will reach more than 1 million students and families learning at home. Resources are available for free and are downloadable from their website.

Access the educator version of the lesson plans HERE
Access the learner version of the lesson plans HERE

The new lesson plan and artwork series for educators features six contemporary Native changemakers and their political, artistic, literary and athletic contributions to this country.

U.S. Rep. Deb Haaland, as drawn by Bunky Echo-Hawk, Pawnee, is proud and strong in her silver Navajo pearls, rays of pink and blue light shooting out around her. 

Suzan Shown Harjo, also by Bunky Echo-Hawk, has the House of Congress behind her, as she is the 2014 recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama, who acknowledged Shown Harjo’s work, saying: “She’s taught all of us that Native values make Americans stronger.”

Suzan Shown Harjo  (Bunky Echo-Hawk)
Suzan Shown Harjo (Bunky Echo-Hawk)
Joy Harjo (Bunky Echo-Hawk)
Joy Harjo (Bunky Echo-Hawk)

He also illustrates Joy Harjo, the United States’ first Native American U.S. Poet Laureate, with her signature long earrings and bright red lips. Joy Harjo is in her second term as the official poet for the country.

“The posters were such a cool idea, and I’m glad I got to be a part of the project,” Bunky Echo-Hawk says by email from Oklahoma. “I’m not sure exactly how they selected the people they wanted to highlight, but I know they wanted to spotlight people who are contemporary leaders in Indian Country."

Echo-Hawk points to the lack of representation of modern Natives in school settings. 

"Too often, the textbooks fall short in including our accomplishments after 1900, and teachers have a hard time connecting our current issues with the past without adequate texts or supplies," he said, noting the poster project will be an "invaluable visual aid."

As for the individuals he was assigned to draw, he says he was elated to illustrate Suzan Shown Harjo, Haaland and Joy Harjo, who have been "incredible influences in my life and personal heroes."

(Related: Joy Harjo: Poetry reminds us we're all connected)

"I am proud that a generation of students will be able to peer over to walls throughout each day and see these phenomenal Indigenous leaders looking back at them,” he said.

Gregg Deal, Pyramid Lake Paiute, is an artist and activist whose work deals with Indigenous identity and pop culture, touching on issues of race relations, historical consideration and stereotypes. 

Sierra Teller Ornelas (Gregg Deal)
Sierra Teller Ornelas (Gregg Deal)

For the lesson plans, he illustrated Sierra Teller Ornelas, a Navajo writer and producer, looking upward in a sea of blue florals and stripes.

Jared Yazzie, Diné artist and fashion designer, contributes a vibrant poster that combines traditional Navajo patterns with space-age symbols in his portrait of Aaron Yazzie, Diné, a NASA Jet engineer. 

Northern Cheyenne and Crow Fashion Designer Bethany Yellowtail’s portrait incorporates her tribal patterns and femininity, her long earrings reaching past her collarbone as a jean jacket is slung around her shoulders.

Aaron Yazzie (Jared Yazzie)
Aaron Yazzie (Jared Yazzie)
Bethany Yellowtail (Jared Yazzie)
Bethany Yellowtail (Jared Yazzie)

Recent reports illuminate the scale of the stereotyping problem and provide a path forward. According to Reclaiming Native Truth, a public opinion research strategy, 72 percent of Americans polled support significant changes to K-12 curriculum, and 78 percent of Americans want to know more about Native peoples. 

It also found the majority of K-12 teachers and parents are aware that curriculum about contemporary Native peoples is both lacking and inadequate. They support changes to improve teachings and standards across schools to improve the quality of education for all students, both Native and non-Native.

Some states are taking steps to address the learning barriers. 

Billy Mills (Jared Yazzie)
Billy Mills (Jared Yazzie)

Oregon, for example, recently passed legislation – which includes funding – to develop statewide and tribally specific curriculum and training. In addition, both Washington state (in 2015) and Montana (in 1999) have mandates that all students in the state learn accurate and authentic Native American content across grade levels.

Change happens slowly, but the arts are a fast and easy way to get the message across.

Learn more about contemporary Native leaders with these lesson plans from @amplifierart here: https://illuminatives.org/nefa/

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Sandra Hale Schulman, Cherokee, has been writing about Native issues since 1994. She is an author of four books, has contributed to shows at the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian and has produced three films on Native musicians.

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