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Indigenous-Led Effort Changes Illinois School Curriculum to Cover Native History

“We’ve never ever given up the right to exist,” says Native scholar Megan Bang, who helped move the law forward.

The 2024 high school graduation season in Illinois was more than a personal milestone for the 140,090 students who earned diplomas in the state’s public high schools. One hundred and sixty-nine years after public school education was first mandated in the state, age-appropriate instruction in Native history will be offered as a matter of course beginning this fall.

Last year, Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed Public Act 103-0422 into law mandating a new unit of study for Native American history in kindergarten through high school. As with all such mandates in Illinois, each of the 852 school districts will decide how to meet it within their local curricula. But they will be greatly aided by a resource guide developed by the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) with stakeholder groups, including Indigenous educators and scholars, advocates from the Native American Chamber of Commerce and the Chicago American Indian Community Collaborative, as well as a member of the Prairie Band of Potawatomi Tribal Council.

Megan Bang, a professor of learning sciences and director of the Center for Native American and Indigenous Research at Northwestern University in Chicago, is one of the Native scholars who has helped propel the process forward. “I wanted a law because without law, good intentions can disappear at [the] next elections,” she told Truthout. Though Native people she knows personally have been pushing school districts for inclusion in the history curricula in Chicagoland public schools since at least the 1990s — “and probably always,” she said — Bang, who is of Ojibwe and Italian descent, can’t remember in her own schooling ever learning “about us.”

“All I can remember is kids’ stereotypes about us, and because I don’t present phenotypically, I got lots of ‘You’re not a real Indian,’” she said. “School was never a place that was easy.”

Some of the difficulties centered around name-calling. For example, Bang says the boys’ soccer team she played on referred to her as the “team squaw.” That was their way of acknowledging her Nativeness, she said, but other than the teasing, she cannot recall ever encountering narratives about Native people in school.

“Most second-graders have got a storyline of how the United States came to be. And it’s either filled with stereotypes, or they start to know there was some violent stuff that happened,” she said. The challenge they faced in developing the resource guide was in educating the youngest children about conflict. But, she says, it is appropriate to teach them whose territories they’re on, as well as sharing some of the value systems expressed in Indigenous stories that communities have said can be shared in the new curriculum. “There’s beautiful knowledge and ethics in many of our communities, and I think that classrooms could and should engage young children in those things,” Bang said.

Thanksgiving pageants in which Natives are portrayed as eager to share the abundance of their lands with European colonizers, welcoming and feeding them at their harvest feasts, function to mask settler-colonial violence and are in a category of their own.

“That’s not not an education. It’s just a particular kind — that myth has been important for people to have no accountability to Native people,” said Bang. “It’s especially important in the early years not to allow that Thanksgiving stereotype as the only representation.”

She describes her participation in the long process of achieving the law and developing the guide as walking a tightrope between holding people accountable and “giving people grace about deep mistakes that they didn’t even realize they were educated to engage in.”

“Part of what is really progressive about this law is that it requires not only knowing our history, but moving people and making sure people know about who we are now,” she added.

Bang has identified several limitations in the process so far. “I don’t think we’re well-resourced. Our entire community is trying to figure out how to deliver on a statewide initiative when it’s none of our jobs,” she said.

She says there’s an unfortunate history of states passing unfunded mandates that end up dying on the vine. “With us, the state is trying, but there is a huge difference in what it’s already said it’s thinking about contributing to this effort compared to the TEAACH Act, the legislation passed around Asian American curriculum.” Passed in 2021, and implemented in the 2022/2023 school year, ISBE established the framework of a working group to develop a resource guide for the new Asian-American curriculum, and Illinois budgeted $1.02 million over two years to support its implementation.

She does not attribute the discrepancy to the fact that Native people are less than 1 percent of the U.S. population or 0.2 percent of public schoolchildren in Illinois. “This isn’t about teaching Native kids,” Bang said. “This bill is about teaching all people.”

“The question for us is: Do American citizens have any civic responsibility to Native peoples? One of the fundamental things I think people forget is that if the United States has any legitimacy, it rests on the U.S.’s commitments and treaties with sovereign nations,” she said. “If the U.S. has any legal integrity, it’s because it has treaties. The extent to which you’re a functional citizen of a nation that has our history means that any citizen should know about Indian sovereignty and treaty responsibilities.”

Until now, the U.S. education system has been “built on our absence,” Bang said, and that its leaders “don’t know anything about us.” But it’s very simple, she said. “We’ve never ever given up the right to exist.”

The second limitation is standards — the tool for system change. Getting standards and curriculum into the hands of teachers is really important, but she wants infrastructure. “Right now, the state has very little representation of Indigenous peoples in any of its governing structures. Illinois doesn’t have a State Office of Indian Ed, as many states do.”

She’s hoping for a follow-up mandate to include Native education in teacher education requirements. It’s too risky to rely on professional development training, because “it isn’t always delivered. If you’re an educator who’s never been educated about Native people, how are you going to do that?” Bang asked.

She’s advocating for the development of an ongoing community of practice. “It needs to become a routine embedded in the way the system functions. We can give you a three-hour workshop and now you’re educated about history, but that’s not okay, because if it’s a scarcity model, it’s actually what feeds community division. Because then people are trying to figure out: ‘We better say this is the most important,’ and then all these other important things go by the wayside.”

To that end, she hopes to work on a future bill to teach the concept of Native sovereignty in every high school civics classroom.

“I really, really hope that what comes out of this is not just about history, but that we get to push into every civics classroom in the state of Illinois. If we did that, there’d be a radical difference over the long arc.”

Josee Starr, director of operations at the Mitchell Museum of American Indian, has worked for years on passing the bill into law, and has served in the past as a chair of the working group with the Illinois State Board of Education. Starr hopes “once the schoolchildren start receiving way more Native history education than they’ve ever had before,” it will trickle up to the parents and the wider community.

She’s heard from people all over the country who never thought Illinois would mandate Native history education. The state forced the removal of the Indigenous tribes from 1828 to 1887. One of these tribes, the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation, is renewing its history in Illinois. After the nation bought back some of its land in Northern Illinois in April, the U.S. Department of the Interior placed portions of the Shab-eh-nay Reservation land into trust for them, making it the only federally recognized Tribal Nation in Illinois.

Starr is eager for the statewide learning come the new school year. For one, she says, there’s the richness in having thousands of years of history to talk about, as well as the 574 federally recognized tribes to learn about over time.

“The challenge will be having the patience to teach people things we feel like they should already know,” she said.

“We’re walking in our own traditional teachings and ways and then we have to be able to survive in the mainstream also, which is how some of our organizations even came about, like the American Indian Center in Chicago or the Mitchell Museum,” she said. “To be able to help bridge that gap, make Native people feel more comfortable, and help to guide them in being able to walk in two worlds.”

She says recompense for the effort they’ve invested will come as understanding spreads that history on this continent did not commence with the arrival of Columbus in 1492, and that despite undeniable state policies of genocide and ethnic cleansing, Native peoples have survived.

“I believe we’ll see the full benefits in two, maybe three, generations,” Starr said.

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