Native tongues

6th May 2005 at 01:00
Denny Hurtado (left) explains how CD-Rom technology gave voice to the Skokomish and neighbouring tribes in Washington State, US

For years, most of what people knew about American Indians was what they saw in movies or read in books. We were stereotyped as either the noble Indian or the bloodthirsty savage. Although we are usually lumped into just one category, more than 550 tribes reside in the US, with wide varieties in culture, languages and traditions. The generalised names may vary - American Indian, Native American, First Nations or Alaskan Native - but native people prefer to be called by their own tribal names. My tribe is Skokomish, which means "people of the river".

When I was in school, the only time we learned about Indians was on Columbus Day, Halloween and Thanksgiving. Most of the lessons were sparse at best or at worst simply biased and inaccurate.

Amazingly, 50 years on, not much has changed. There are many books on Indians, but the majority of them are still filled with stereotypes and misconceptions. This is why myself and Dr Magda Costantino, director of the Center for Educational Improvement at Evergreen State College, decided to develop a rich, culturally responsive, culturally accurate reading curriculum.

Although the curriculum focuses on reading, it is interdisciplinary. You could use it to teach social studies, history, maths or science and teachers could adapt it for their use.

The Northwest Reading curriculum for five to eight-year-olds came about as a direct result of the findings contained in the Reading and the Native American Learner, a research document published in 2001 and compiled by the Washington State Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction and the Evergreen Center, both located in Olympia, Washington.

In 1998, the Washington State Native American Education advisory committee decided that we should focus on reading in our state because our native students were not making standards on Washington State tests. Only 33 per cent of the 25,000 9-year-olds tested in Washington were at pass level or above.We knew that better reading was the gateway to our success in wider society.

The process by which the curriculum was developed was one of inclusion. We first invited several tribal cultural experts from throughout the state to a meeting. Tackling the question of what we want our kids to learn, we found common ground in our cultural identities.

For example, since I am from a fishing tribe, I suggested we should do a thematic unit on the canoe. The eastern tribes of Washington (plateau tribes) wanted to focus on the drum, since all tribes have some type of drum. We then decided to add another unit on hunting and gathering.

These three themes represented all of the 29 tribes located in Washington State. We then asked the cultural specialists what content needed to be in each of the units, after which the reading specialists and curriculum specialists could work the cultural content into a user-friendly format.

Because there are so few accurate books about the canoe and the drum, we had to commission native authors and illustrators to write original books for the curriculum. And we transferred all the content into CD-Rom format: the curriculum guides, all 22 original books, historical photos, references and video clips. We have also produced a training video on how to use the curriculum properly.

The results from the students were remarkable. Primary native students from the Tulalip tribe developed a project called Uncle Jerry's Canoe, an interactive CD-Rom which explains many aspects of the canoe.

Meanwhile, first grade students at the David Wolfle elementary school rewrote one of our original stories - Jerome Jainga's Canoe Canoe What Can you Do? - on computer, complete with all their own illustrations. They then printed and presented the book to us for our development of the Northwest Native American Reading Curriculum.

These examples demonstrate the power of a culturally responsive curriculum, and how projects about their own communities and culture can motivate native students to be involved in many other aspects of learning. Whether using the technology of the computer or the technology of a canoe or drum, this inclusion is the key to good teaching and good learning.

Denny Hurtado is Indian education director for Washington State;

Teaching tips

* Work in collaboration. This project could not have succeeded without the partnership between our two offices

* Find a funding source, you will need money to pay for development of the curriculum, books, CD, videos etc.

* Use an inclusive model. This helps develop a relationship between various communities who historically may have been suspicious of each other. Trust is critical

* Write, or commission, your own books. Many native students felt that it was refreshing to read books that were written and illustrated by people like themselves

* Have a training component. Most teachers are not comfortable with teaching about what they do not know or understand Contacts

* Tulalip Elementary; email David Cort:

* David Wolfle Elementary; email Linda Middlebrook

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