Teachers think they're doing a lot for us by having a week on Indians --"We're going to do an Indian unit"--especially before Thanksgiving--"and we're going to make a little headband with feathers and everyone is going to understand what it is to be Indian." That's ridiculous.
--Nola Lodge (Oneida)
WE HAVE ALL seen and probably suffered through the kind of educational experiences Nola Lodge describes. From instructional materials to classroom decorations, schools are deluged with stereotypical images of America's Native peoples. Despite a vast array of research and primary sources that provide a complex and highly textured history, a simplistic version of how non-Indians settled the North American continent persists in most classrooms around the nation. Montana's Indian Education for All (IEFA) Act offers a remarkable opportunity to change that. The law requires that all of Montana's children learn the history and culture of the 12 tribes and seven reservations spread across the state.
Research indicates that American Indian students still attend schools where they do not see themselves reflected in the school's guiding principles, in the curriculum, or even in their own classrooms. Meanwhile, non-American Indian students still do not learn about their Indian peers, with whom they will continue to work and live throughout their lives. Up to now, little has been done to implement specific language in Montana's constitution requiring a commitment to preserve American Indian history and heritage through education.
This year, for the first time, the state legislature has funded implementation of IEFA. As we begin to implement the law, most of our focus is on classroom teachers and administrators. That is as it should be. The first steps will occur in classrooms around the state, and most teachers, administrators, and other school personnel are not ready. As they begin, they will need a strong program of professional development that emphasizes both gaining knowledge about the tribes and developing the strategies necessary to infuse that knowledge into classroom instruction. However, we must also begin to think in the long term about how we can educate preservice teachers and administrators for the future so that they can enter schools ready to make IEFA a vibrant, meaningful, and integrated part of life in their learning communities.
TOWARD A COURSE OF STUDY
In fall 2003, the director of the Northern Plains Transition to Teaching, an alternative certification program, asked me to develop an online course that would help teachers meet the requirements of IEFA. I had experience developing online courses but had never designed a course about American Indians. As I looked around for examples of such courses, I found nothing that would serve the purpose of preparing students for the specific tasks called for by IEFA. I would be starting from scratch. As a non-Indian, I was acutely aware of my own lack of expertise in American Indian history and culture. Could I trust that a course I developed would be historically accurate and culturally appropriate? What if I made the same mistakes that had been made so often in the past and, without knowing it, perpetuated stereotypes or taught inaccurate information? Because of the complexity of American Indian history and culture and the diverse perspectives and experiences of Indian people, it is always difficult to make decisions about course content. This is true for both Indian and non-Indian course developers. As Richard Littlebear of the Northern Cheyenne noted, "Whenever we as American Indian people develop ... curriculum materials, we tend to immediately develop a faction that opposes their use; this opposition occurs without anybody appreciating the fact that members of our own tribes locally produced these materials." (1)
With some hesitation, I decided to take on the challenge. Confident that I could develop instructional activities and fully aware that I could not make decisions about the content, I knew that consulting local and state Indian education experts every step of the way would be crucial. …