New law would add native culture to curriculum

TULALIP — Children at Quil Ceda Tulalip Elementary file in to the school’s multipurpose room for the morning assembly at 9 a.m. every day.

It starts with the beat of a drum, and the assembled students sing a traditional song, or line up to dance in a circle.

Afterward, they all stand and recite the Pledge of Allegiance before heading to class.

For several years at Quil Ceda Tulalip, where 60 percent of the 527 students are Native American, the students have benefited from an integration of native culture and history into their classroom lessons.

Chelsea Craig, a Tulalip tribal member who works as a cultural specialist at the school, has driven the effort to bring more culturally relevant content into the classrooms, most of which are led by a non-native teacher.

“I’m trying to give tools to the classroom teachers,” Craig said. “We have 30 classrooms and I’m trying to get them all on board.”

One major tool in her kit is Since Time Immemorial, the native-focused curriculum developed by the state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction and endorsed by all 29 federally recognized tribes in Washington.

Since Time Immemorial, also known as the sovereignty curriculum, is a collection of lesson plans, cultural resources and materials that teachers can incorporate into their lessons.

There are materials for every grade from kindergarten through high school, all aligned with the federal Common Core standards. All the materials are free and available online at

The curriculum includes both culture-specific studies as well as materials to include into U.S. and world history courses where the perspectives of native populations have often been overlooked.

A ninth grade unit on World War II and the Cold War, for example, might include readings on the Hanford Nuclear Reservation’s effect on tribal communities, or the development of post-colonial states in Africa.

The Marysville School District has used the curriculum extensively for years, said Kyle Kinoshita, the district’s executive director of learning and teaching. The school board approved it this year for inclusion into its secondary social studies and history courses.

“We thought it was an important symbolic and practical move to adopt it officially,” Kinoshita said.

Inclusion of the curriculum has been encouraged since it was launched in 2005. This month, the Legislature passed a law requiring all school districts to include elements from STI into social studies programs when those curricula come up for review.

Gov. Jay Inslee is expected to sign the law, which passed with strong majorities in both houses of the Legislature.

Schools like Quil Ceda Tulalip and Heritage High School, located on or near Indian reservations and with full district support, have had a head start rolling out the curriculum.

For other schools, there will be a period of trying to get up to speed.

The OSPI has been offering training sessions for teachers across the state, said Michael Vendiola, director of the state Office of Native Education and a member of the Swinomish tribe.

“Our intention with the passing of the bill into law, is to create more opportunities for teachers to have access to the training,” Vendiola said.

The biggest obstacle so far to that has been a general lack of awareness of the resources available, he said.

“Oftentimes teachers will come to the trainings and be a little wary. By the end of the training they will see how easy it will be to implement the sovereignty curriculum,” Vendiola said.

Using the curricular materials will be up to individual teachers. For those who don’t already have a strong relationship to a local tribe, that could be challenging.

As Craig explains, “You can’t just open it up and teach it. You have to see the value in it,” she said.

At Quil Ceda Tulalip, Craig has been working in every classroom to help teachers more effectively tie native themes into their work.

On Thursday, Craig helped out in Corina Hansen’s fifth-grade class with a unit on cedar trees and how the Coast Salish people use its bark for weaving.

Craig explained to the rapt kids how native harvesters would strip only some the bark off the trees, and compared the action to getting a cut on your finger: it hurts, but it will eventually form a scar.

Hansen then reminded her students from an earlier science lesson, in which they studied how tree cell layers regenerate.

Craig demonstrated cutting bark into long strips, and the kids passed around and smelled strips of raw bark, Craig’s cedar rain hat, a basket and other woven products.

Later, the students would be given reading and writing exercises on the subject.

“The key is to get their attention like this, then get them doing the writing and reading,” Craig explained. “It’s always tied with reading and writing.”

That’s also the key approach at Tulalip Heritage High School, part of the Marysville Tulalip campus, where academic study is interwoven into building a stronger sense of community among the school’s 80 students, all of whom are Native Americans.

“They’ve always looked at project-based learning as better for kids,” said Principal Shelly Lacy, also a Tulalip tribal member.

The school started out as “Project Salmon,” designed to help native kids remain in school while still being able to retain their heritage and fish during salmon season.

Nowadays the school pursues the same goal by bringing in tribal elders and other members of the community as volunteers, and designing the students’ education around projects that give back to the community.

“We work hard so that students see themselves in this school and that it’s a safe and welcoming place,” Lacy said.

The welcoming aspect is especially important with native students. Many native communities are still somewhat wary of public educational institutions because of the history of sending tribal students to boarding schools where their language and cultural traditions were suppressed.

Craig’s own grandmother was a boarding school girl, she said.

“An elder once told us that we have to earn that trust back and heal one person at a time,” Craig said.

The effects are not limited to native students. Quil Ceda Tulalip has a small population of students from Russia and Ukraine as well, Craig said.

“I tell them my grandmothers’ story and they say, ‘Now I understand why we go to Russian school on Saturday, to hold on to my culture,’ ” she said.

By including their culture in their schools, many students are learning more about their identity, and bringing it back to their communities.

“We’ve had students who have never drummed and sang taking their culture back to share with their families,” Craig said.

Chris Winters: 425-374-4165; Twitter: @Chris_At_Herald.

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