In 2015 the legislature passed a law mandating the teaching of social studies curriculum that accurately conveys the history, challenges and Native perspectives on tribal sovereignty and Native culture. The resulting Since Time Immemorial: Tribal Sovereignty Curriculum was created through a partnership between the state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction and tribal nations in Washington and was endorsed by all 29 federally-recognized Tribes in Washington.
The curriculum spans from early learning to high school and asks students and teachers to explore ideas such as worldviews and perspectives of Indigenous people may be very different from those of non-Indigenous people. Traditional Indigenous worldviews are often grounded in a recognition of the interrelationship among humans, animals, plants, water, winds, sky, and earth. The curriculum raises questions like, as sovereign nations, what do local Tribes do to meet the economic and cultural needs of their tribal communities?
Washington State Senator John McCoy brought forward the legislation that established the Since Time Immemorial curriculum and recently reaffirmed its importance stating, “We have 29 federally-recognized Tribes whose stories need to be taught in school. If our students learn about European and Euro-American history and culture, but don’t learn about the Native American history and culture that unfolded on the very ground we walk on, their education is fundamentally incomplete.”
Bellingham Public Schools has been working to integrate this curriculum over the past seven years. Director of Teaching and Learning Charisse Berner said, “My thinking has shifted from ‘this is a state requirement’ to ‘this is something that we need to do that cultivates inclusivity and supports our Native neighbors and students.’ There are lots of state requirements, but this one is important and we want to do it.”
U.S. history textbooks often cover Tribal Nations in other areas of the country and are sometimes criticized for providing incomplete or biased accounts of tribal history. The Since Time Immemorial curriculum uses a place-based approach, encouraging teachers and students to address essential questions in the context of tribes in their own communities. It also provides online resources and lesson plans, reducing the need for textbooks.
“The Since Time Immemorial training opened my eyes to the sacredness of this work, and to the importance of educating ourselves and our students about the history of the Indigenous people who were here since time immemorial, and the respect and reverence we owe them.” said Mimi Saunders, third grade teacher at Northern Heights Elementary School. “The training will most definitely guide our third grade team as we teach about the history of the Pacific Northwest and its people.”
Bellingham Public Schools has more than 400 students who identify as Native American. According to From Where The Sun Rises, a report published by Washington State University College of Education, learning the historical and contemporary issues facing Tribes benefits both Native and non-Native students. Teaching Native history, language and culture in schools can help students feel more comfortable at school and it can deepen their tribal identity and sense of pride.
“Every student should be able to see themselves in our classrooms,” said Berner. “Having a fuller understanding of history will help us develop more empathy, find similarities, and we’ll be less likely to repeat actions that marginalize students of color, particularly Native students.”
According to the report, when schools demonstrate that they value Native culture, non-Native students benefit through increased respect, understanding and awareness for Native people and culture and the hardships they have faced. Schools benefit from increased communication and understanding between Native youth, families and the school community.
BPS middle school teachers have been attending the Since Time Immemorial trainings since 2013, and recently eight teachers from a variety of levels attended professional development workshops on the curriculum. Additionally, a team of teachers participated in the 2019 Study Canada Summer Institute on indigenous ways of knowing.
“The training was very informative. I especially enjoyed learning from and watching the videos that Darrell Hillaire, of Children of the Setting Sun Productions, created about the Canoe Journey,” said Sunnyland third grade teacher Stephanie Horsfall. “Watching people from all different Tribes come together in such a beautiful way was moving. I also enjoyed hearing the story of the Salmon Boy and will share that story with my students.”
Bellingham Public Schools is also organizing professional development opportunities that align with the curriculum, such as “Crossing the Bridge,” a half-day event with members of the Lummi Nation. About 30 participants crossed the bridge over the Nooksack River and heard from tribal members, including Steve Solomon, on the significance of land to Indigenous life. They then traveled to Lummi Day School at Northwest Indian College where they viewed a film about the Nooksack River by Althea Wilson. Teachers also brought their curriculum ideas and workshopped how to further integrate native perspectives into their teaching.
Teachers were given pre-reading which included an article by Leanne Betasamosake Simpson.
To me, this is what coming into wisdom within a Michi Saagiig Nishnaabe epistemology
looks like – it takes place in the context of family, community and relations. It lacks overt
coercion and authority, values so normalized within mainstream western pedagogy that they are
rarely ever critiqued. The land, aki, is both context and process. The process of coming to know
is learner-led and profoundly spiritual in nature. Coming to know is the pursuit of whole body
intelligence practiced in the context of freedom, and when realized collectively it generates
generations of loving, creative, innovative, self-determining, inter-dependent and self-regulating
community minded individuals. It creates communities of individuals with the capacity to uphold
and move forward our political traditions and systems of governance.
– Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, from her article Land as Pedagogy: Nishnaabeg Intelligence and Rebellious Transformation, published in Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society, Vol. 3, 2014.
The ongoing work is supported by an ongoing collaboration between Western Washington University’s Canada House and the Lummi Nation. Many individuals have contributed their time to create these relationships and learning opportunities including Cynthia Wilson and Renee D. Swan Waite (Lummi) and Anna Lees, Kyla Sweet, Dolores Calderon and Jessica Ferreras-Stone (WWU).
Sweet was encouraged by teachers’ interest in the work, stating, “Teachers would talk to us and say ‘I know I need to do something about this,’ and they just got stuck there. Who do I reach out to? It’s kind of intimidating to not know who to call up. One day of professional development is not going to check your box — it’s about building relationships and contacts.”
“To me, having authentic learning experiences through land and water education with and from our amazing tribal neighbors shifts people’s hearts and minds in a way that being told ‘you have to do this’ does not,” said Berner.
Swan Waite said teachers were impacted by the learning opportunities, “I recently met early learning teachers who had been doing professional development around this and the first thing they said to me was, ‘I’m sorry. We didn’t know’.”
“The work is really just so important,” Swan Waite continued. “It’s important for native kids who go to Bellingham schools to see themselves reflected in the curriculum so they are not invisible. And it’s good for our neighbors, too. How are we going to act neighborly with each other if we don’t have an opportunity?”
Cordata third grade teacher Morgan Hunter recently attended the training and said, “It’s not just teaching the curriculum but creating a bridge to all of our cultures and recognizing where we come from and where we are going together. It’s partnering with experts, family and community members from our local, neighboring Tribes to teach, honor and embrace their way of life.”
“I love seeing what’s unfolding organically,” said Sweet. “You can infuse Indigenous knowledge in things like math, science, every subject.”
More plans are in the works to encourage elementary school teachers to attend the curriculum training and the district continues to explore how to better serve Native students and build relationships with tribal leaders.
“The history we haven’t told is fundamental to having stronger relationships,” said Berner. “We are continuing to invest in and develop relationships with our Lummi neighbors to deepen our commitment to decolonizing our curriculum and honoring Indigenous ways of knowing,”
“It can feel overwhelming to teach about painful episodes in our history, but there is never a wrong time to do the right thing,” said Geneva Elementary School Principal Sharece Steinkamp, who participated in the Study Canada Summer Institute.
“We have more than 400 native students in Bellingham Public Schools and I think that’s a chunk of students who need to see themselves, be seen and be honored by our teaching in a way that they haven’t been in the past,” said Berner. “By better understanding the history that actually happened, we can plant the seeds of truth and reconciliation.”
“It’s so rich what we’re doing. I just can’t imagine not doing it,” said Swan Waite “And it’s for our kids. It took a long time to get here. And there’s a shift that’s happening. We have to keep doing it, no matter how long it takes. We’re crossing the bridge, that’s our metaphor for this work.”