Making Native American history a core subject

Making Native American history a core subject

(Wyo.) Lawmakers are gearing up to establish a mandatory statewide curriculum for Native American history and culture in Wyoming as part of a long-term priority of teaching a more accurate state history.

The state’s committee on tribal relations, author of the Indian Education for All Act, approved a draft of the bill last week. If passed by the full Legislature next year, the bill would require the State Board of Education to work with tribal governments to develop the standards.

“When most people explain Wyoming history, they’ll talk about the original fur trade and Luis and Clark’s expeditions as the beginning of state history, and that’s incorrect,” chairman of the committee, Sen. Cale Case, R-Lander, said in an interview. “For thousands of years prior, Wyoming history was Native American people who made substantial adaptations to a really harsh landscape, and who held important occupations and made numerous contributions.”

The bill is modeled after one adopted in Montana in 1999, which goes by the same name, and also provides information regarding the diversity of the state's tribes and the creation of reservations in the state.

Within the past two years, Washington State implemented a new K-12 curriculum about the history and governance of Native American tribes in the state, and California began authorizing the Commission on Teacher Credentialing to issue American Indian language-culture credentials to those who can demonstrate an ability to teach historically accurate American Indian tribal customs.

Native American culture–as well as how the relationship between tribes and the U.S. government is often still strained–has been in the spotlight due to a standoff at the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in North Dakota, where protesters argued that building an oil pipeline near the reservation could likely pollute the Sioux tribe’s water. The conflict came to an end following widespread criticism that methods to break up the protest, including spraying those gathered with water cannons in below freezing temperatures, could cause irreparable damage. The Department of the Army announced last week that it would look for alternate routes for the pipeline.

According to Case, the committee’s decision has little to do with the conflict in North Dakota, however, and is about addressing the contributions of indigenous people throughout Wyoming.

“About 10 percent of the state is made up of Native Americans, there are various tribes all around the state, and we just elected a Navajo woman as a Senator–the first Native American in the Legislature,” Case explained. “There was a realization that this is a piece of Wyoming history and culture we need to talk about.”

A similar version of the bill was introduced last year but failed to make it through the Legislature due to concern from lawmakers that it was not quite what the state needed. This updated version is more likely to pass, he said, because of the recent influence of educational videos produced by Wyoming Public Television through a federal grant which detailed a unique local reservation on which two tribes operate under one government.

Although only a draft bill has been approved thus far, Case said that it already has support from the state Department of Education, the state board of education and the Wind River Advocacy Center, and that it will be official once the Legislature is back in session.

“It will be introduced–that’s a sure thing–and we’re all excited about it,” Case said, noting that Rep. Jim Allen, R-Lander will be lead sponsor. “At the state level, we’ve worked really hard at finding ways to build understanding of local tribes. It’s an ongoing process, and my guess is that other states will begin doing something similar.”