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American Indian Studies and Act 31

Monday, October 8, 2018

According to David O’ Connor, the Department of Public Instruction’s consultant for American Indian Studies, 95% of indigenous students attend public schools. While the efforts of schools such as Menominee Indian High and Waadookodaading are crucial, the significant majority of indigenous students aren’t experiencing schooling that necessarily educates them about their cultural roots and history. It’s also deeply important for non-indigenous students to learn about the history of colonialism in America and the histories and cultures of Wisconsin’s 11 tribes and bands.

“We feel the history of indigenous people is important no matter where one teaches,” said Eli Youngthunder, a U.S. and World History teacher at Black River Falls High School, when speaking about the racial demographics of his students (25% are indigenous, mainly Ho-Chunk). This is where Act 31 comes into play.

Spurred by the racism and general ignorance around tribal sovereignty and treaty rights that underscored the Walleye Wars and tensions around the Lac Courte Oreilles right to hunt during the 1980’s, Wisconsin Act 31 (1989/1991) was a critical moment for American Indian Studies in the state. The Act requires that all public school districts provide instruction in the history, sovereignty, and culture of the 11 federally-recognized tribes and bands in Wisconsin. This must be included in the curriculum at least twice during the elementary years and once in high school.

Wisconsin teachers must also be instructed on these topics to acquire their teaching licenses.

Yet, compliance with Act 31 is often lacking. American Indian Studies shouldn't necessarily look like an extra Native American history unit tacked onto pre-existing curriculum. O’Connor said that the best approach to teaching American Indian Studies is to integrate history and cultural information into a variety of subjects. But some schools continue to struggle with this. As referenced in the Wisconsin School News article “From Treaty Rights to Cultural Sensitivity,” a 2014 survey shows that only four out of ten teachers said they integrate American Indian content into their curriculum.

Black River Falls High School exemplifies a sincere, school-wide push to more fully integrate indigenous history and cultural awareness into ‘traditional’ curriculum. “We tend to incorporate the work [American Indian Studies] within our curriculum so it comes from a more natural starting point,” said Youngthunder. “We would rather have the discussion be ongoing throughout the year rather than a ‘one and done’ approach.” Youngthunder also notes that Black River Falls High School has been working as a whole to integrate American Indian Studies more thoroughly into the student experience.

“We have also established a connection between our student senate and Native American Club (Waksik Wacek) to help [students] better understand the idea of sovereignty and government-to-government relationships.”

Paul Rykken, another history teacher at Black River Falls High School, has been integral in the movement toward incorporating American Indian Studies into the school’s broader curricula. In the 2009 document he authored, “The Infusion Approach to Native American Studies,” he mentions that the school “concluded that ‘add-on’ components in the curriculum highlighted a sense of separateness and confined native studies to one course or one grade level and were, therefore, somewhat counterproductive.”

Instead, studying the history and cultures of indigenous people should be infused into a year-long curriculum, and into more than just history classes. “Act 31 is a way to incorporate history about marginalized people to address some of the current problems in society today,” said Youngthunder.

His sentiment is echoed by Peter Michaud, a 5th-grade teacher at Ronald Regan Elementary in New Berlin, Wisconsin. “A part of it is about ‘hidden curriculum,’ about addressing stereotypes or issues that come up in current events,” said Michaud. He relies on resources from The Ways and Wisconsin Public Television to help teach his students about tribes and bands in Wisconsin.

“Unfortunately, Native Americans are, in some cases, still portrayed as relics of history rather than living cultures,” said Youngthunder. He also emphasizes that history and culture vary from tribe to tribe: indigenous people are not a monolith. From dated images of indigenous people in regalia when typing “Native Americans” into a Google search, to curricula that only teaches about Native peoples in the 1800’s, to well-meaning murals, such as the one at the Northern Great Lakes Visitor’s Center that only depict indigenous people in pre-contact settings, the misperception that indigenous people are all the same and a part of the past is not uncommon. It is necessary, then, to ensure that education about tribes and bands in Wisconsin includes contemporary information.

Carrie Bohman, a history teacher at Madison West High School, will be instructing the school’s inaugural Wisconsin First Nations class this year. She stated that there’s been minimal attention paid to teaching indigenous history in a holistic, focused way at West, despite the presence of Act 31, but also said that this issue isn’t just specific to West High, nor to the high-school level.

“The main impetus for the Wisconsin First Nations course was not just to be in compliance with Act 31, but also the rich and poignant histories and cultures of the eleven Wisconsin nations,” said Bohman. “Students of history in Wisconsin need to know whose land they’re on and about the historic relationships and contemporary interactions between these vibrant Indian nations and the state of Wisconsin.”

Students will become familiar with a variety of decolonized historical narratives that Bohman anticipates will challenge the sense of history they have when they come into the class. In addition to learning about sovereignty and treaty rights, students will also meet with elders and go on local field trips.

“Elders and local field trips will affirm content presented and ground students in the place, contributions, and realities of local nations and cultures,” said Bohman. She also hopes to establish an exchange program with students from the Red Cliff band, where students from Madison visit northern Wisconsin and vice versa.

“We shouldn't just be doing this because a piece of legislation says we should,” said Bohman. “The tribes and bands in this state have such rich histories, and these histories and cultures are relevant to so many contemporary issues.”