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Osten behind bill calling for teaching of Native American history in public schools

State Sen. Cathy Osten, a Sprague Democrat, is renewing her push to mandate the teaching of Native American history in the state's public schools.

Osten announced Thursday that representatives of Connecticut’s five state-recognized Indian tribes will join her Monday outside the Capitol in Hartford to announce the resubmission of a bill seeking to add Native American studies to social studies curriculums.

The General Assembly’s Education Committee held a public hearing on the measure in March, just days before the 2020 legislative session recessed — for good, it turned out — due to the coronavirus pandemic. The legislature is scheduled to reconvene Jan. 6.

Senate Bill 314, which Sen. Eric Berthel, a Watertown Republican, and Rep. Robin Comey, a Branford Democrat, joined Osten in sponsoring, called for local and regional school boards to include Native American studies in their districts’ social studies curriculums. It would have authorized the use of materials made available by the State Board of Education as well as other “appropriate” materials, provided the curriculum focuses on “the Northeast Woodland Native American Tribes of Connecticut.”

Osten said the bill has the backing of the state-recognized tribes, four of which have reservations in southeastern Connecticut: the Eastern Pequots of North Stonington, the Mashantucket Pequots of Ledyard, the Mohegans of Montville and the Golden Hill Paugussetts of Colchester.

The fifth state-recognized tribe, the Schaghticokes, occupies a reservation in Kent.

The Mashantuckets and the Mohegans also have gained federal recognition, which enabled them to develop casinos on their reservations.

“We are ecstatic and in full support,” Rodney Butler, the Mashantucket chairman, said of Osten’s bill. “Cathy has shown time and time again how government-to-government collaboration works for the benefit of all. She worked directly with all five of the historical tribes of Connecticut in drafting this legislation and we look forward to supporting her at the Capitol next week to celebrate this milestone and Native American Heritage Month.”

Katherine Sebastian Dring, the Eastern Pequot chairwoman, also lauded Osten's efforts.

“The Eastern Pequot Tribal Nation is an essential part of U.S. history,” she said in a statement. “As a First Nations People with a reservation established by the colonial government in 1683 and continuously occupied and controlled by the tribe since that time, it is extremely important that the educational system include our tribal history.”

In March, Lynn Malerba, chief of the Mohegan Tribe and a former chairwoman of the tribal council, submitted testimony in support of the bill, as did Michael Thomas, a former Mashantucket chairman.

”As you are well aware,” Malerba wrote, “the narrative about our American Indians and Alaska Natives, the first peoples of this land, varies widely from positive to negative, employing many stereotypes and beliefs that may or may not be grounded in fact. ... I think the story of resilience, and nation rebuilding is important for our students to understand not just the historic context in which we lived, but our continued survival as tribal nations.”

Miguel Cardona, commissioner of the state Department of Education, had some doubts about the bill.

“We believe that learning about Native Americans is crucial to understanding their lives and culture, however we are concerned regarding the added burden placed on the Department, as well as the unfunded mandate being placed on districts,” he testified. “Districts are just now moving to a less prescriptive system to allow students more flexibility with the classes they are taking, and continuing to add new courses year after year is against the spirit of that transition.”

Ray Rossomando of the Connecticut Education Association, which represents active and retired teachers across the state, also expressed concerns about expanding curriculum requirements.

“Increasing the number of topics legislatively each year is not a sustainable practice and represents a significant shift of curricular decisions from teachers, administrators and locally elected boards of education to the legislature,” he said.

In 2019, Gov. Ned Lamont signed into law a bill requiring that African American and Black studies and Puerto Rican and Latino studies be included in public school curriculums, starting with the 2021-22 school year.

b.hallenbeck@theday.com

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