Decolonizing the Classroom | Chalkboard Project

Decolonizing the Classroom

Monday, May 6, 2019 Ashley Walker

Pictured above: Ashley and her grandmother Lucy

Through my role at Chalkboard Project, I have been able to learn more about the meaning and plans for implementation of SB 13, Oregon’s legislation requiring that tribal history and culture be taught in Oregon’s classrooms.  This work is meaningful to me professionally, but also as a Native parent of a school-aged child in Oregon.

When my grandma was young, she went to boarding school, as did many of her peers. The idea at that time was to “civilize” Indian children, away from their families, their culture, and their languages. When my dad was in public school, in Portland, he experienced explicit, codified racism. By the time I was in school, obvious, personal acts of racism were less common, but I learned whitewashed versions of history, experiencing the cognitive dissonance of learning about “those people” in “the past,” while I was sitting right there: an actual Native American, in modern times. I didn’t learn about sovereignty, indigenous understandings about ecology, or about Indian role-models doing important work in the current world.

I grew up and had my own son, sending him out into the world of school. Early on, he came home from preschool, bothered. “Mom, Howie says all the Indians are extinct. Like the dinosaurs. But we ARE Indians!”

He’s had a better experience in grade school than his grandpa and I did, largely because of Title VI Indian Education programs, where he has had his identity affirmed, met Indian mentors, and connected with other Native peers. But this year, he’s in fourth grade. The year of the “Native American Unit” in social studies. The first day, he told me the teacher had read aloud a “Native American Myth.” This was the first time, in 4.5 years of public education, that he and his classmates had been introduced to such a thing.

Currently, “Native American Myths” are included in social studies curriculum, and are contained there, as something other than literature. Less than, maybe. Definitely “other.” And as such, they can be judged as something outside the norm. Something to be held up and compared to “real” stories. “White” stories. My son says a classmate raised his hand when it was done and said, “I wrote better stories than that in the first grade.”

This is the reason I am so happy to support the implementation of SB13. This curriculum, spanning subject-areas and written in collaboration with Oregon’s nine federally recognized tribes, will provide students with a well-rounded understanding of indigenous knowledge, traditional values, history, and current contributions. These topics will be woven into children’s education as integral, rather than as a stand-alone unit that can be shoved into a box of “I wasn’t that into it” after the diorama has been turned in and the last lesson has wrapped.

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