Dear Teachers

(This is the greeting from Shana Brown (Yakama), her curriculum is “A Thousand Celilos: Tribal Place Names along the Lewis and Clark Trail.”)

            Imagine the life energy we can inject into our students, classrooms, and our communities when we refuse to accept the metanarrative, when we empower our students to refuse to accept that there has always been a Starbuck’s on that corner and always been a cornfield on that back forty.

My colleague Shane Doyle (Apsáalooke [Crow]) just told me that if we close the book on a particular historical place or event, that the history is dead. Dead? The short answer is “Yes, it is.”

The longer—and much more powerful rationale—came when I asked him to tell me more: “When we accept one perspective, we assume that we know everything we need to know about history; we also assume that we have everything we need to know about the future. And both of those things are impossible.

“If we accept that both [history and the future] are predetermined, then we decide that the story has been written.

“The way people learn from history is to present it and re-­present it. Each generation and each individual needs to have the opportunity to represent that history in a way that makes the story their own. The historical metanarrative takes that power away from us. History is about empowerment, and we are disempowered when we are left out of the possibility of knowing or telling a different story. [The metanarrative] is easily consumable and fits within the framework of a history that is less complex than it should be. And so one of the weaknesses of history is that it’s not complex enough; what feeds into that is the idea that history is what is written down. There are millions of stories that are not written down, and when we ignore those or act like they’re irrelevant, then history is dead.”

That’s what this entire project is about. Demystifying and disassembling the written historical canon in such a way that honors the legacies—and layers—of the vast history of this land.

My curriculum, “A Thousand Celilos: Tribal Place Names and History Along the Lewis and Clark Trail,” strives to tell the story of a place that, on the surface and in the present, is silent and docile. Celilo Falls, a once thriving sacred fishing and cultural site along the lower Columbia River that divides Oregon and Washington State, was a “world trade center” for thousands of years for hundreds of Indian tribes as far north as Alaska and as far east as the Dakotas. In 1957, the US Army Corps of Engineers built the Dalles Dam and inundated the falls, drowning along with it millennia of commerce, economic superpowers, industry, tradition, and culture. What the Dalles Dam did not do, however, is drown the spirit of The People. It did not drown the history. Time and water covered it up, but the falls are still there, still magnificent, still sacred.

My Auntie told me a long time ago that the Army Corps of Engineers dynamited Celilo Falls shortly before its inundation, thus destroying any hope of its return if, say, in some far off future, changing social mores and environmental priorities saw fit to dismantle dams to restore salmon runs. 2007 ACOE sonar photos dispelled that long-­held, common belief. In fact, Celilo Falls is completely intact, and, as if in defiance of the directive to die, the Falls are nearly free of the massive silt buildup that the Corps and the Columbia River Tribes had expected. It is nearly pristine, a symbol of the resilience and perseverance of the tribal people who revere it. What if everyone had just continued to blindly accept the metanarrative of its fate?

Now, imagine if you teach your students to look beneath the murky waters, to uncover the stories of the places where they live and go to school?

There are a thousand Celilos. There are a thousand places that have been covered by the silence of untold or long-­ forgotten stories. Imagine the life energy we can inject into our students, classrooms, and our communities when we refuse to accept the metanarrative, when we empower our students to refuse to accept that there has always been a Starbuck’s on that corner and always been a cornfield on that back forty. How about that for bringing history to life?


My Thoughts on the Common Core

Truly the Common Core State Standards are skills-­based, not the regimenting of the educational system and its students. It was in this vein that I presented to my fellow Honoring Tribal Legacies writers and colleagues the idea that in order for us to be transformative we could not be happy with a significant part of social studies curriculum, and they were already well ahead of me. The curriculum they envisioned (and have now written) focuses on math and science, pre-­school to college. For me, a humanities teacher, I did not have to break new ground to gain entrance into mathematical and scientific legitimacy, I had to transform the literary trail, worn deep by the mono-­vision of predecessors who categorized tribal stories and legends alongside other world mythology and primary reading curriculum. And then left them there. Their extensive worth untapped.

David S. Reynolds suggests that the literariness of Pre-­Civil War transcendentalists “resulted not from a rejection of socioliterary context but rather from a full assimilation and transformation of key images and devices from this context.”

My fourth grade unit of study: “A Thousand Celilos: Place Names and History Along the Lewis and Clark Trail” follows in the same vein of pragmatism and elevates, I hope, the curriculum as yet another tool to teach the Common Core.

The unit elevates local tribal literature, experience, and oral history to mentor text status, worthy of the rigor that the Common Core requires. One cannot merely dismiss the literature with a patronizing pat on the head as the “nice little folklore of a once proud people.” The literary and informational merits of the selections stand on their own.

The rigor of these selections begs for a legitimate place in mainstream education—at the very least, in the teaching of the standards, and, at the most, a place in the canon itself. This is not to say that notable authors like Sherman Alexie and Louise Erdrich are unworthy or are patronizingly used in English/Language Arts classrooms. It is to say, however, that the oral histories and legends of tribes on their own are, in fact, worthy exemplars of literary and informational texts.

The Common Core State Standards advocate for increasing the percentage of informational reading over literary texts as students mature.

Among the rationale provided by David Coleman and Susan Pimentel, the publishers’ criteria of the Common Core State Standards demands selections that exhibit a number of criteria.

Coleman and Pimentel also claim in the criteria that “Informational texts in science, history, and technical subjects may or may not exhibit literary craft, but they should be worth reading as valuable sources of information to gain important knowledge.”

The inextricable marriage of the natural, the spiritual, the artistic, the literary, the historical, and the scientific in Native Teachings embodies what Coleman and Pimentel call “literary craft.”The literary and the informational are contained in oral teachings. They are one and the same. For example, Yakama tribal member and elder Dr. Virginia Beavert’s retelling of the oral tale “Echo Mountains at Palouse” not only explains the geological features of a certain sacred area in her tribal homelands located in what is now called southeastern Washington State, it describes the local tribal traditional preparation of salmon, the traditional staple of northwest tribes. The tale is meant to be told, taught, and heard, not read in isolation for one single academic discipline. The tale encourages pronunciation of certain Ichiskiin words, a local dialect from the Sahaptin tribal language family. It explains the process of twisting native hemp into string for fishing nets and dramatizes the scattering and rebounding of sound waves, a scientific phenomenon known as “echoes.”

All within two pages of text.

One reading contained in my unit of study highlights what our team already knows: Native perspectives are essential in meeting the rigorous standards of the Common Core. By sheer economy, oral legends, such as “Echo Mountains at Palouse,” connect the two textual worlds upon which the Common Core insists: the literary and the informational. The connections do so in such a way that they compel teachers to seek opportunities to extend learning about culture, science, spirituality, and literature across literary and informational texts. Our curriculum project routinely provides both the informational and the literary, because that’s how traditional culture and beliefs work: everything is organically connected: visual, oral, and (later) written art reflects beliefs, science, even governance. The connections are not forced, artificial, or even have to be created by the teacher. The interdisciplinary connections are authentic and obvious; the interpretation of the literature is rigorous.

We do not stop at the academic value of the tribal teachings, however; we as a curriculum writing team do not deny the obvious, glaring omission of an essential skill we all teach. In my interactions with teachers all over the Northwest, the big complaint about the common core standards is the treatment of teacher and student as automaton. If all we taught—and all we were responsible for teaching—were skills, every child in the country would be an independent, online learner. We don’t simply teach skills.

The core, and I believe in the common core, leaves out the most important thing we teach: we teach the human, we teach students the value of humanity and the responsibilities that all of humankind share. The core omits it simply because it is not testable or measurable. It is, nonetheless, essential and it was once present in several state learning goals that are quickly being abandoned in favor of the common core. We should not and cannot deny its rightful place in academia.

We suggest, then, an Eleventh Standard: that students “demonstrate environmental stewardship and a sense of service achieved through acknowledgement of the interconnectedness of humanity in historical, cultural, scientific, and spiritual contexts.”

I invite you to value the Eleventh Standard not just as part of Honoring Tribal Legacies, but as an essential piece of your own planning and teaching.

— Shana Brown (Yakama)