Native American history, voices to be heard in schools
Chris Newell, former education supervisor for the Mashantucket Pequot Museum & Research Center, said during his six years at the museum it was not uncommon for a student or parent to ask, innocently, if the Pequots are still alive.
Newell said schools have been erasing Native American history since the beginning of public school systems in the 19th century.
That’s likely to change.
Last year, state legislators passed a bill mandating school districts to teach Native American studies by the start of the 2023-24 school year.
Such studies, the law says, must include "a focus on the Northeastern Woodland Native American Tribes of Connecticut."
Educators from local tribes are excited about the prospect of expanding Native American curriculum in K-12 schools.
To them, this serves as an opportunity to include their history and voices like never before and to assert the presence of tribal nations today.
The legislation places Connecticut ahead of other states in the country. According to a survey of 35 states with federally recognized tribes in 2019, the National Congress of American Indians found less than half said Native American curricula is required in their state and that it is specific to tribal nations in their state.
State curriculum in the works
Irene Parisi, chief academic officer for the state Department of Education, said her office started reviewing Native American studies a year ago and is in the beginning stages of creating a curriculum. Parisi works in partnership with administrators and educators to develop model curricula, providing frameworks and tool kits to be leveraged across the state’s roughly 200 school districts.
“We want to be accurate and to truly understand their contributions to Connecticut,” Parisi said. “Each tribe has a very unique story to tell. We want students to be aware of that fact and the only way to do that is to have conversations.”
Parisi said it is planning to convene with the five state-recognized tribes― the Schaghticoke, Eastern Pequot, Mashantucket Pequot, Mohegan, and Golden Hill Paugussett. She said her office wants to be respectful of how it interacts with the tribes and still has a lot to learn before developing a model curriculum.
She said the curriculum is likely to be done by July 1, 2023.
Unlike the state’s required Black and Latino courses, public school districts will not be required to adopt the curricula the education department ultimately approves. Parisi said every school district has an opportunity to create curricula, and there are many resources they can use, including that directly from tribes or nationally vetted curricula.
Newell co-founder for Akomawt Educational Initiative, a majority Native-owned educational consultancy, said it will depend on how far schools want to go in fulfilling the mandate. Newell, of the Passamaquoddy Tribe at Indian Township, Maine, married into the Mashantucket Pequot Tribe in 2007 and lives on the reservation.
Right now, he said the three most common touching points where Native Americans are mentioned include encountering Christopher Columbus, a Thanksgiving narrative slightly based in fact and the Westward Expansion/Trail of Tears.
He is working as a consultant to the state Department of Education’s Academic Office and shaping the language incorporated in Native histories.
Input from local Native teachers
Tribes in the region have spent decades pushing for their histories to be told as they know them, creating educational resources, outreach programs and more. American Indian teachers have long incorporated their tribe’s history into their lectures.
Beth Regan, vice president of the Mohegan Council of Elders, spent 35 years as a teacher and coach at Tolland High School before she retired in 2014. During her time as a teacher, Regan crafted lesson plans that included history about the Mohegans.
Now, some of that material can be found in the Educator’s Project, a free interactive Native American curriculum produced by the tribe. The project was released to educators earlier this year and was a years-long initiative between the Mohegan Council of Elders, the tribe's Cultural & Community Programs and Communications departments.
Samantha Cholewa, the director of Mohegan curriculum and instruction, oversees the Educator’s Project and provides professional development to teachers and future teachers at universities. Cholewa said the reception of the project has been widespread and dozens of school districts have reached out to her.
In the southeastern Connecticut region, she has so far provided professional development to schools in Waterford and East Lyme.
Cholewa taught in Norwich and Griswold public schools for eight years prior to working for the tribe. During her time in Norwich, she said she created a social studies unit on the Mohegans for the public school district to be taught to all fourth-grade students with the support of the tribe.
As members of a tribe, Regan and Cholewa had the personal knowledge and backing of their tribes to create inclusive lesson plans. That is not always the case for non-Native teachers, and Regan said there has to be a partnership among tribes and school districts.
“We need teacher allies,” Regan said. “And we’re ready to assist.”
Regan said a way to create allies is using the Educator’s Project. She said the educational program has six major units for multiple grade levels― and it is growing.
Cholewa said she is currently working on a unit titled “Mohegan Village: Day in the Life” which will allow students to dig deeper into the Mohegan people and life in the 1600s. The unit will include information on dwellings such as wigwams, clothing and food or resources of the river.
Cholewa said she hopes to integrate the history of other tribes into the project.
Natasha Gambrell, a councilor for the Eastern Pequot Tribe, is a teacher at Grade Oaks Charter School in Bridgeport, where she teaches 10th grade English. Gambrell has also covered local tribe topics in her classes such as the Pequot massacre in Mystic and the Golden Hill Paugussetts.
While excited about the prospect of the new mandate, Gambrell is nervous. She said it is about making sure Native American voices are incorporated. Gambrell cites the fact that the Eastern Pequots are not federally recognized as the reason it doesn’t have the resources like other tribes to draft educational programs and materials. The Mashantucket Pequots and Mohegans are Connecticut’s only two federally-recognized tribes.
“The only way this will work is if you have Native people or tribal liaisons making the curriculum,” she said.
She added that mandate will go a long way in making Native American students feel like they are “not forgotten for a change.”
Gambrell said she has never understood why students are taken to New York and elsewhere for Holocaust museum or 9/11 museums but never a local tribe’s museum.
“We have a massacre site in our own backyard,” Gambrell said.