Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

One Teacher's Story: Creating a New Future or Living Up to Our Own History? for Those Who Might Question Whether a Law Such as Indian Education for All Is Necessary, Ms. Warren Offers Her Own Story as a Perfect Example of Why It Is

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

One Teacher's Story: Creating a New Future or Living Up to Our Own History? for Those Who Might Question Whether a Law Such as Indian Education for All Is Necessary, Ms. Warren Offers Her Own Story as a Perfect Example of Why It Is

Article excerpt

SOMETIME during my 14 years of teaching in Montana, I became vaguely aware of a Montana law known as Indian Education for All (IEFA). I teach junior high language arts in a school far from a reservation, and few of my students identify themselves as Native American. So, because of the many other things clamoring for my attention every day, felt no pressing need to learn more about the law or how might apply to my school or to me. If it did have something to do with me, I reassured myself, someone would tell me. And if it had anything to do with the students at my school, it must already be a part of the social studies curriculum.

About a year ago, I heard Montana's legislators debating school funding for IEFA, and I began to grow curious. So I did a little research and discovered that the state legislature had passed the Indian Education for All Act in 1999. Written to support Montana's new state constitution, enacted in 1972, the law directs schools to teach all students about the cultural heritage and contemporary contributions of Montana's American Indians. According to the law, all school personnel are also expected to "gain an understanding of and appreciation for the American Indian people."

"School personnel?" I thought. "That's me." With the nagging suspicion that IEFA might, in fact, have implications for me and my school, I finally read the law. It is impressive, for it is deeply rooted in democracy and reflects so much of what I believe about the roles and responsibilities of education in our society. As I've learned more about IEFA, I've come to feel proud that my state is taking the lead in what I hope will become a national movement in American education. Perhaps most important, I now realize that I have a clear responsibility to my students and to myself. And that means I have a lot of work to do.

WHY DIDN'T I KNOW?

A year ago, I knew very little about American Indian history, and what I did know about Montana's tribes could have been gleaned from a tourism brochure. That's because I--like most other Americans--am a product of a system of education that simply does not include Indians. In my high school class in Ohio history, for example, I learned matter-of-factly how the Shawnee, Wyandot, and Erie tribes disappeared when Mad Anthony Wayne killed them off to clear the way for "settlers" to move west. Today, I would call that ethnic cleansing. But the authors of my textbook didn't even hint that it might represent some injustice. Instead, this process was celebrated as "Manifest Destiny." However, at least some Ohio Indians must have escaped Wayne's slaughter and the later removal to "Indian Territory" because I saw Indians once a year when my parents took me to an Ohio Indian festival. I must have been aware that Indians lived somewhere in the state, but I never wondered where or how they lived.

I don't know why it has taken me so long to notice my ignorance. Nearly 30 years ago, I lived and studied in Otorohanga, New Zealand. While in school there, I learned the history, language, and culture of the Maori, New Zealand's indigenous people. I attended school and played basketball with Maori kids. They were a visible part of every community. You would think that I might have made a connection. I might have wondered where the indigenous people in my country were. I didn't see them in my high school. No class existed to teach me their language and culture. It was as if Indians weren't even there--weren't even a part of our society. And yet they were there, and I could have seen them if I'd known to look. With the support of IEFA, perhaps today's students in Montana schools will notice, both while they're in school and when they reach adulthood.

American Indians live in all parts of Montana, where I now live. But I honestly can't say that I have been any more aware of them or of their histories and cultures than I was years ago in Ohio. Nor have I been aware of any expectation that, as a teacher and citizen of a state where Native Americans are so prominent, I should know. …

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