Clark County’s history did not begin with the arrival of European settlers during the 1800s. Native tribes such as the Chinook, Cowlitz, and Klickitat inhabited the area for thousands of years, developing a culture which continues to influence the region.
Knowledge of these tribes and an understanding of their connection to modern Vancouver is an essential part of Washington’s history. For this reason, the requirements imposed by the legislature in 2015 play a role in a comprehensive education for local students.
But as detailed in a recent report by Crosscut, a Seattle-based investigative journalism outlet, schools and tribes across the state are struggling to implement the program. Lawmakers adopted the requirements while leaving it up to each district and tribe in their area to determine how to make them work.
“I didn’t really expect a lot of resources because it’s education and because it’s around tribal work,” said Marjorie James, Tulalip Tribes program and engagement manager, at Crosscut. “We’re used to rubbing two nickels together.”
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The larger question concerns legislative power. Improving the study of Native Americans and their cultures, leaders, and histories is a laudable endeavor. No one can claim to know Washington without knowing its people and the roles they continue to play in our communities.
In 2005, lawmakers agreed to “encourage” school districts to teach about Native Americans, and the state superintendent’s office partnered with tribes to create a program called “From Time Immemorial: Sovereignty tribe in Washington State”. A decade later, classes became mandatory in the history and government curriculum.
The problem: Funding is left to individual districts and tribes. As Crosscut reports: “Nearly seven years later, however, it is unlikely that any of the programs since time immemorial have been fully implemented at all grade levels in any Washington district, according to representatives from the State Superintendent’s Office, the Office of Indigenous Education, and Indigenous Education Leaders.
Attempts to support and develop equity and inclusion often come down to a simple signal of virtue. Trying to do the right thing takes more than passing a bill and congratulating yourself on a job well done; execution and funding may be required, depending on the situation.
If lawmakers simply “encourage” districts to include Native American education, it leads to disparate efforts among those districts. If lawmakers require districts to include such education but fail to provide adequate funding and guidance, this also leads to disparate efforts.
Education about Washington’s native tribes is, indeed, important to understanding our state’s history and present. And involving local tribes in the development and implementation of this education is an appropriate step. “These relationships with tribal nations are key to developing all of our educational work and to expanding opportunities for students to learn directly with contemporary tribal peoples who are their neighbors,” said Dr. Laura Lynn, supervisor of program at the state’s Office of Indigenous Education.
At a time when the teaching of American history is a source of intense debate, the issues at stake risk being misinterpreted. Focusing on local indigenous peoples is not an effort to rewrite history, but rather an acknowledgment that history must be viewed from various angles.
Schools across the state should do a better job of recognizing this.