WHITE SWAN — A picture of Chief Little Crow was plastered across the first page of a PowerPoint presentation that 13-year-old Brandon Spencer was assembling at White Swan High School one recent morning.
“He’s part of a Sioux tribe and I’m part of a Sioux tribe,” the eighth-grader and Yakama tribal member said about the chief who led the Mdewakanton Dakota Sioux in the mid-1800s.
Sitting next to Spencer was 14-year-old Darnell Williams, also an eighth-grader. He was working on a presentation about Sitting Bull, once chief of the Hunkpapa Lakota Sioux.
“He was a good chief,” Williams said. “He was tough.”
Both Spencer and Darnell are taking a recently implemented tribal sovereignty class in the Mt. Adams School District.
“I like this class because I can learn more about my culture, my tribe and other tribes,” Spencer said.
Adopted by the state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction, the tribal sovereignty curriculum that covers the history, culture and governments of tribes across the country with an emphasis on Washington tribes is available to school districts across the state. The curriculum can be used in elementary, middle and high schools, and to satisfy social studies credit requirements. Education plans in the curriculum can be modified to fit each school district and corresponding tribe.
The curriculum is open to all students and is not only designed to teach members of the state’s 29 federally recognized tribes about their own history, government and culture, but also to educate non-Indians about tribal communities.
The online curriculum is the result of a bill signed into law by Gov. Chris Gregoire in 2005 that encourages school districts on or near Indian reservations to incorporate tribal studies. Bill sponsor Rep. John McCoy, D-Tulalip and a Tulalip tribal member, said the absence of Indian studies in public schools left a gaping hole in history classes and caused a disconnect between schools and Native Americans.
For the past seven years, tribes across the state — including the Yakama — have been working with educators in their respective school districts to develop the curriculum, which can be found at www.indian-ed.org. Also covered in the curriculum are the treaties Northwestern tribes signed with the U.S. government, and how their traditional hunting, fishing and food gathering rights in their original territories were reserved.
The new curriculum also has drawn the interest of Heritage University in Toppenish, which plans to incorporate it into the college’s indigenous studies program next year, said Winona Wynn, head of university’s English and humanities department. She will head the indigenous program next year.
“We want to retain and respond to our native students and we want them to feel a sense of belonging at our university,” she said.
There are three public school districts on the 1.2 million-acre Yakama reservation: Mt. Adams, Wapato and Toppenish.
The Toppenish district, which is in its second year of teaching tribal sovereignty, has been a training ground for teachers at other districts who want to implement the curriculum. Involving tribal elders who are responsible for passing on tribal history, culture and spiritual beliefs to younger generations has been instrumental, said Yakama tribal member Patsy Whitefoot, who is the Indian education director for the Toppenish School District, where Native Americans account for more than 12 percent of the students.
“There’s a lot involved in this,” Whitefoot said. “I think the uniqueness in all this is being able to get people together to talk about what it means to be a Yakama.”
Although the Wapato School District sent teachers to the training, it hasn’t decided whether to implement the curriculum. But it encourages teachers to incorporate tribal culture into classes when appropriate, district spokesman Mike Balmelli said in an email. Native Americans account for nearly 20 percent of students in that district.
At White Swan High School, the class has already generated excitement among students who otherwise lost interest in school, said language arts teacher Peggy Sanchey, who teaches the tribal sovereignty class. She said some students are spending two hours after school working on tribal sovereignty projects, and parents who never graduated are asking about the class. Their inquiries have school officials discussing whether to begin a GED program attached to a tribal sovereignty class for adults, she said.
White Swan is an unincorporated area deep within the Yakama reservation, where poverty is high and job opportunities slim. Faced with poverty and gang violence, students here are struggling to meet state learning standards. Last school year, only 34.7 percent of Native American students in 10th grade met state reading standards and 52.1 percent met state writing standards, according to the OSPI website. Native American students account for 54.4 percent of students in the district.
By comparison, Native American students in the Toppenish School District — 20 miles to the west on the reservation — are making significant strides. Last year, 57.1 percent of Native American 10th-graders met state reading standards while 76.2 percent met state writing standards, according to OSPI. Several programs, including STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), have been credited with improving scores at the Toppenish district.
But Sanchey believes student scores in White Swan will improve with the new curriculum because it offers Native American students a sense of pride about their heritage, something formal public school settings once strived to strip away.
“More important to me is that these kids understand who they are and who their ancestors were and what they meant to their tribes,” said Sanchey, also a Yakama. “These kids need to know who they are, and they’re not gangsters — they’re Native Americans with proud heritage behind them.”
• Phil Ferolito can be reached at 509-577-7749 or firstname.lastname@example.org.