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Native American Heritage Month: Teachers Must Also Be Seekers

Tuesday, November 1, 2022
tribal nations map
A map showing the current reservations and Tribal lands in Wisconsin. To view the map in further detail, go to this PDF for more information

ConnectEd spoke with David O'Connor, American Indian Studies Consultant at the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction. We specifically wanted to ask what is evolving in the ways we talk about and teach Native American heritage, Native American history, present, and future. What follows is our conversation. 

You’re asked to talk about Native American Heritage every November. Can you reflect on what that means to you? How would you like to reframe the concept of Native American Heritage month for Wisconsin educators?

David O'Connor:
For me, a lot of times my concern that I consistently see is that we do things in these silos or bubbles all the time. Hispanic Heritage Month, Women’s History Month...I understand the context of why they came about, but all those histories are United States history. So, when you separate them out, they become compartmentalized. They are seen as only a part of the narrative during that time, rather than infused throughout the year and the curriculum. Indigenous histories and cultures are important 24/7/365. You can incorporate this content into multiple academic subject areas throughout the year. Not just as part of social studies. It could be included into reading, literacy, music, science, math.

When you see it that way, it becomes a natural part of learning about different cultures in our own country. We are a very diverse nation, and sometimes I feel like when we don’t learn about each other more in depth, it’s from food, festivities, heroes, and holidays perspective primarily. When you start going down deeper in those conversations, that’s where you as an educator have an opportunity to learn with your students. That’s teaching culturally 101.

You can move past teaching Native American heritages, cultures and histories as just food, festivities, heroes, and holidays. When you start seeing Native American cultures and histories through multiple lenses — that’s where you become more natural and fluent as an educator.

When I talk with educators throughout Wisconsin and throughout the country, I present this concept as an evolution. How do we go from informing to understanding? I’ve developed this framework I call the Four I’s. Our goal is to move through the Four I’s to not just fulfill the letter of the law, but to educate and enact a deeper understanding and consciousness about the First Nations of Wisconsin and the United States.

What are the Four I’s?

David O'Connor:

  • Inform — Educators are required under Wisconsin Act 31 to teach about the federally-recognized American Indian nations in Wisconsin. This is the stage where the educator fulfills the requirements of the statute, but not much else.
  • Include — Where an educator is introduced to resources and they add them into the curriculum, but they don’t feel fluent or comfortable with the content. An example of this is using resources to supplant your instruction, like PBS Wisconsin Tribal Histories, Biographies, Wisconsin Historical Society's Native People of Wisconsin book. A teacher might even bring in a guest speaker.
  • Integrate — Here is where the educator begins to build on their knowledge base, plugging resources in at different times of the year and into different parts of the curriculum. But, maybe they still question themselves here or there because either their content or resources are still externalized. They may still feel uncertainty in teaching the topic, or lack some confidence.
  • Infuse — Where an educator naturally shares knowledge and resources throughout the year. If they make mistakes, they continue on. Teaching and learning about the cultures, values, histories, past, present, and future of Indigenous nations is vital to understanding the stories of the United States. It’s here where the educator gets to the space where they are trusting their gut instinct, trusting their students to move forward with them.

Before you get to this final I, you need to get comfortable with unpacking, unlearning, and re-learning not just what you know about Indigenous nations and peoples, but you need to confront stories and ideas that you took for granted. That’s scary. But like all learning, it’s important to ask questions, and push through discomfort to get to a stage of fluency and where it’s second nature.

What are some examples of things school districts or teachers can do to reflect best practices and innovation in teaching about Native American tribes in Wisconsin?

David O'Connor:
Start talking about terminology. That’s a lesson plan itself. Do I use American Indians, Native Americans, First Nations, Indigenous? They’re all terms that have been used, and that I may use interchangeably. They each tell a story of a specific time and vantage point, and that’s something we need to grasp. Terminology will continue to change, and that’s means that perspectives are changing.

The next conversation, we want to move past the general terms. I want to hear from educators, “I’m teaching Ojibwe Studies, Oneida Studies.” Being tribal nation-specific, from the people who live right here on the land, and have lived on this land. You can’t zoom out and see historical perspective without understanding the ground beneath your feet. The individuals and specific Native people and nations from right here.

Another thing we want is for educators to teach about your community today. Yes, there’s a historical perspective, but there’s also a contemporary perspective. I always tell people to talk about local and regional, and expand out. You will start to see that things you thought were necessary (like doing land acknowledgments) won’t be necessary because the students, the people will already know. That’s a win. Doing your due diligence expands the work into areas that challenge the status quo.

I always emphasize that Indigenous people and nations have shaped these lands before Wisconsin became a state, or even the United States existed as a country. We impact this area every day as community members — teachers, lawyers, doctors, mechanics, small business owners. We will impact Wisconsin and the United States in the future, too. We have changed the world. And I think recognition needs to be brought forward on that. Histories are STORIES. It’s good for ALL students to see themselves as a part of the continuing story and narrative.Learning helps to create justice. It provides windows and mirrors. Representation and words matter, and leads to a more just future.

For more information on integrating Native American heritage into your teaching, visit these new 2022 lesson plans.