Commentary: Tribal history key to learning shared culture

Schools have been encouraged teach tribal history since 2005; in 2015 it became mandatory.

By John McCoy

It’s hard for anyone to ignore the growing conversation about the way we commemorate our country’s complicated past, especially on Columbus Day.

Debates over our symbols — holidays, monuments or the names of public buildings — are important and will continue, but I still believe education is the key to our future.

If we have any hope to bring peace to our increasingly polarized country, we must focus on teaching our children a fact-driven, accurate narrative of our collective history.

Here in Washington, we are slowly making progress on that front.

In 2005, I helped pass legislation to help integrate tribal culture, history and government into all public schools across the state. Due to a variety of factors, including lack of funds to train teachers, school districts were slow to incorporate the new curriculum.

A decade later, the best estimates showed less than half of school districts had adopted it.

So in 2015, the Legislature strengthened the law, requiring all schools to use the curriculum we call “Since Time Immemorial: Tribal Sovereignty in Washington State.” The materials are free to educators and were developed through a unique collaboration of state, tribal and local leaders.

We are seeing improvements and with renewed support from the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction, an increasing number of districts have started integrating the new curriculum.

That means more students around the state are starting to benefit from access to the rich culture and history of our region’s indigenous people. Understanding tribal treaty rights and the history of our 29 federally recognized indigenous sovereign nations is crucial to understanding the past and present of our great state.

They are also learning about some of the hard realities — how thousands of Native American children were separated from their families and “assimilated” at government or religious boarding schools run by white missionaries in the 19th and 20th centuries.

A Yakima Herald reporter last month found that only two of 22 students in a Central Washington University class for future teachers had heard about the boarding schools.

“I had a good number of students who were upset that they didn’t learn this — like, ‘Why did I have to get to college to learn this?’” CWU professor Susana Flores told the newspaper.

Clearly, there is room for improvement — and fortunately we are starting to see it.

Tribes across the state are stepping up their efforts to partner with local elementary, middle and high schools. The goal is to build bonds that will result in a lasting cultural understanding.

Locally, we are lucky to have outstanding educators such as Marysville School District’s Matt Remle, who was recently named Educator of the Year by the National Indian Education Association. Matt and Marysville’s outstanding team of teachers have been using “Since Time Immemorial” since 2014 and I’ve heard positive feedback firsthand.

More can be done and I will to continue to fight for funding in Olympia that could speed up the program’s expansion. And on Tuesday in Anacortes, tribal and state leaders will sit down together for the 28th annual Centennial Accord Meeting to find common purpose on many statewide issues, including education.

As the noisy debate in this country gets louder, let’s not forget to focus on the facts that matter most — the ones we choose to teach our kids.

State Sen. John McCoy, D-Tulalip, represents the 38th Legislative District, including the communities of Tulalip, Everett and Marysville.

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