Like all kids in Utah, American Indian children are required by law to attend school, but they are rarely taught about their own history, culture or customs. Recent legislation aimed to change that by footing the bill for the development of curriculum that can be taught to any age group, but specifically to students in 4th and 7th-grade Utah studies programs.
"I think for too long the American Indian story has been considered only a 19th century story," said Elizabeth Player, an educator hired to work with the University of Utah's American West Center to develop 24 lesson plans, including glossaries, mini-histories, interactive maps of original territories and more for Utah teachers to incorporate more of the American Indian heritage into current teaching plans. "This shows that our Utah American Indians are here, they're vital, they're living their culture. To make sure that our students are seeing that in their classrooms is going to make a big difference."
The new comprehensive study program for K-12 educators in all Utah schools delivers such tidbits as the fact that the Ute Indian tribe manages one of the largest herds of buffalo in the country and the Navajo Nation has its own president, vice president and government apart from the United States government.
"Lots of research went into this, and if the schools use it, the new curriculum will change students' perspectives of Native Americans in Utah," said Virgil Johnson, a Granger High School American history teacher and member of the Goshute tribe. "Not enough emphasis has been given to this."
Several years ago, nationwide studies indicated that Utah fell behind other states in its efforts to educate American Indians and to teach about their heritage in public schools. The shortfalls resulted in a growing number of dropouts among the American Indian population, as well as increased lack of interest in schools among the demographic. Local leaders and lawmakers responded with the encouragement to develop new curriculum.
"One of the needs of American Indian students is that they work together to figure things out," Player said. Her favorite lesson plan incorporates all five Utah tribes, focusing on the different skills they showcase such as Navajo weaving, Paiute basket-making, Ute buckskin tanning, Goshute botany and Shoshone bead work. "It's engaging and provides the collaborative environment where they learn best," she said. "It's just a real fun lesson."
Lesson plans are based on KUED's production of five documentaries about the prominent tribes in Utah, "We Shall Remain: A Native History of America and Utah," as the two collaborated on the major curriculum project for Utah schools. DVDs of the episodes are contained in a binder with the 24 lesson plans and other instructional materials that were recently sent to all parochial, private, public and charter schools in the state. Workshops are also being held in various districts through December to introduce teachers to the materials. Educators who attend the workshops receive their own grade-specific teaching materials from the American West Center's project.
"The history of Utah, and indeed of the United States, looks significantly different when viewed from the Indian perspective," said Matthew Basso, history and gender studies professor at the U. and director of the American West Center. "It is essential for students to learn about Utah's tribes' long struggles for survival and why those struggles occurred. It is just as essential for students to realize that while each of these tribes has had setbacks and tragedies, they have also had triumphs."
The center was chosen to help with the project because it has archived 40 years worth of collection, preservation, interpretation and distribution experience of the various remarkable histories of the West's diverse populations, particularly American Indians, Basso said. American West also has a history of collaboration with tribal communities in the area, which brought great promise to the project.
"The We Shall Remain series fills a gap in the 7th-grade Utah studies curriculum," said Pam Su'a, a social studies consultant for the Jordan School District. She said the new lessons are Utah-centered and make good use of available resources, including an interactive Web site, utahindians.org.