Each year, as the nation marks Native American Heritage Month, educators look for lesson plans and classroom resources to engage their students. Some of these teachers are using state-created resources or following state mandates to teach Native history, such as recently released materials in Oregon and a new Indian Education statute in California.
These states, and many others, are taking steps in the right direction to make sure that students see the history and contemporary experiences of Native people as nuanced, relevant and impactful.
These developments, however, will be meaningless unless we are able to answer the following question: How are we ensuring that our teachers are both well-prepared and well-equipped to begin sharing information and material they likely never received themselves in a formal classroom setting?
Any major changes to what we expect K-12 teachers to do in the classroom prompt concerns about teacher bandwidth, time and materials. As a former middle school social studies teacher in Tennessee and Georgia, I understand those feelings of being overburdened and under-resourced.
That is why it should fall upon states, professional associations and universities — not teachers — to create professional development programs to enable educators to teach these lessons well. Teacher preparation programs and ongoing professional development opportunities must help teachers feel prepared to accurately and honestly reflect the full history of this nation.
Doing so means developing respectful relationships with Native nations and Indigenous communities, tribal colleges, Native educators, tribal education departments and Native education researchers. It means honest, accurate history instruction for teacher candidates. It means using Indigenous-authored classroom resources and hiring Native faculty and staff. It means providing robust funding to create and continually update classroom resources. It also means making ample space for individualized learning opportunities and self-reflection for teachers and students and using the classroom as a space to amplify Indigenous perspectives and priorities.
This work can support shared futures that are grounded in relationships and focused on our collective well-being.
The need to do this work is urgent, as the number of states developing K-12 curricula related to Indigenous peoples continues to grow.
For example, in June 2019, Kentucky state Rep. Attica Scott introduced legislation to mandate the creation of new African history and Native American history curricula. In September of that same year, Oregon officials began releasing dozens of new lesson plans from the state’s tribal history/shared history curriculum.
And in October 2021, California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed legislation mandating statewide Ethnic Studies coursework, including Native Studies. This September, Newsom signed the aforementioned Indian Education Act to support local education task forces made up of school districts, government offices and representatives of Native nations in collaboratively gathering information and developing classroom resources.
Illinois legislators are currently working with Indigenous people in the state to introduce a new education bill next year. The bill would mandate teaching Indigenous histories in Illinois classrooms; hopefully it will also provide resources and teacher training, informed by the perspectives of Indigenous people, to support the mandate’s implementation.
The work of states like Kentucky, Oregon, California and Illinois joins decades of advocacy in other states. Hawaii, Maine, Montana, Nevada, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Dakota, Washington and Wisconsin all have materials designed to teach K-12 students about the Indigenous histories of the Native nations whose territories their states occupy.
Before new ways of teaching Native history affect students, we must support teachers in expanding their content knowledge.
Some of this has been codified in law: Hawaii and Montana have state constitutional mandates to teach Indigenous histories, while Arizona, Connecticut, California, Maine, Michigan, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oregon, South Dakota, Washington, Wisconsin and Wyoming all have state statutes supporting or requiring the development of K-12 content about Indigenous peoples.
And there are current calls in other states, including Alaska, Kansas and Minnesota, for the development of similar initiatives.
Such efforts align with national guidance from the National Council for the Social Studies, which has called for “the creation and implementation of social studies curricula that explicitly present and emphasize accurate narratives of the lives, experiences, and histories of Indigenous Peoples, their sovereign Nations and their interactions — past, present, and future — with Euro-American settlers and the government of the United States of America.”
These initiatives are all designed to directly combat the explicit erasure of Indigenous peoples in K-12 education. As researchers have noted, nearly 87 percent of K-12 social studies standards represent Native people only before the year 1900.
Related: Tell us your story about the Bureau of Indian Education
In addition, civics education often erases tribal sovereignty. By the time students reach my college courses, many are frustrated at their lack of exposure to information about Native nations and peoples.
But before new ways of teaching Native history affect students, we must support teachers in expanding their content knowledge. Even as the nation’s teaching force has grown more diverse, the percentage of Native teachers has continued to be disproportionately low, constituting roughly 0.5 percent of all K-12 teachers.
The vast majority of U.S. teachers are white women who, like most Americans, received very little accurate information on Indigenous peoples in their own K-12 and higher education experiences.
The groundbreaking Reclaiming Native Truth study from the First Nations Development Institute and Echo Hawk Consulting sets out a number of objectives for education, including teacher preparation benchmarks. Its timing is spot on. As more states increase their Indigenous history offerings and pass mandates, the time is now for improving teacher professional development.
Well-resourced Indigenous history coursework should become foundational to teacher education programs for teachers. The work does not end with the approval of a curricular mandate; it is only the beginning.
Meredith L. McCoy is an assistant professor of American Studies and History at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota.
This story about teaching Native history was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.