My Story: The Creating of A Curriculum or the Little Rabbit Who Became An Otter

(This is a preamble to Shana Brown (Yakama)’s curriculum, “A Thousand Celilos: Tribal Place Names along the Lewis and Clark Trail.”)

Hello. My name is Shana Brown, and I am a recovering “Indian Expert.”

I was born and raised on the Yakama Indian Reservation. My mother was an enrolled tribal member, and she married a white man. My brother and I were lighter skinned than all our cousins, and definitely lighter than the other Yakamas on the Rez. My brother found it fairly easy to fit in, because he went the cowboy route. I, on the other hand, was different. I didn’t like to get dirty; I didn’t like the dust. I was distrustful of strangers and introverted. Not good to be on a reservation.

And I was afraid of all those tough Indian girls. I remember hiding behind my cousin at the local movie theater when I was young. Course you didn’t have to be that tough. I was much smaller than average and as timid as a rabbit. These girls could take one look at me and see “lunch” not merely written on my little rabbit forehead, they’d see it on a big sandwich board with flashing neon letters. I learned how to melt into the wall.

I could be even more inconspicuous if I weren’t there at all. So, I picked white friends, did “white” things, like sleepovers and finding ways to avoid going to rodeos with my family. Into adolescence, I learned “white” things. Attending a public school (the tribal school at that time was for those Indian kids who didn’t fit in the mainstream educational setting), I learned about ancient Greece and Rome, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance. That was what was of value.

Now you might be thinking here, “Where’s your family? Where’s your tribal upbringing?” Indeed, where was it?

My family never taught me to be ashamed to be Indian, to be sure, but those things that would or could make me proud were long gone. My mother’s parents were products of Indian boarding schools. It was there they lost their language, and a good lot of their Indian identity. We didn’t grow up traditional; we grew up Catholic. While others learned how to bead, I learned how to crochet and embroider, just like my grandma learned at St. George’s Indian School in Tacoma, Washington.

I’m not telling you all this to excuse my shame, only to explain it. There were just as many children and grandchildren of boarding school kids that embraced traditional culture in spite of the cultural genocide experienced at those institutions.

I am very proud of my grandparents, Blanche (Hoptowit) and John Craig. My grandma worked for the tribe as a cook, first at Head Start, then for the tribal jail. My grandpa worked construction, masonry and concrete work on dams, ironically enough, and other local building projects. Not once did they ever negate their “Indianness,” neither did my mother for that matter. But there was always an explicit belief in my world: white ways were superior to Indian ones. That came from all over the reservation.

But it was my great effort to forget or deny my Indianness. The tribe back then had summer programs and camps to teach about tribal ways and bring the tribe’s children together. Since I felt so intimidated around kids who were so obviously Indian, I avoided them. I opted for days in front of the TV by myself over those tribal programs.

I should explain a little about my reservation. While the Yakama Reservation is the largest in Washington State (probably one of the largest in the nation), its land base is known as a “checkerboard.” Through the General Allotment Act (also known as the Dawes Act) land was divvied up among Indian families to establish individual ownership of tribal land, and thus divide and conquer. When the federal government ran out of enrolled tribal members to whom to allot land, the remainder of the reservation was declared “surplus,” and then open to non-­Indian settlement. Moreover, Indian families were taxed on their property, and since back then, it was quite easy to sustain your family in traditional ways of hunting and gathering, there wasn’t a big need for cash. But now you needed lots of it to keep your land. Many Yakamas (like thousands of others) were forced to sell their property or have it foreclosed upon. This land was then offered up to non-­Indian sale. The land was purchased by non-­Indian farmers and ranchers, including my husband’s family. So there are large plots of land that are non-­Indian owned, but are completely within the borders of the reservation.

The voices that mattered were those of the business and property owners. And those are the only voices I heard. In my public educational and therefore social world, there was no one who said or showed that traditional ways were anything other than the occasional spectacle at the All-­Indian Rodeo or Treaty Days celebrations.

So, remember that my little rabbit self rabbited everywhere Indians were not. In the fourth grade, my best friend’s father endearingly referred to me as “Buckskin.” At sixth grade camp (sponsored by the Yakama’s tribal camp called “Chaparral”) an elder came to tell Spily’i (coyote) stories one evening. In going out to “cruise” on Saturday nights in Yakima, my best friend defended my acceptability by stating to a cute boy who accused me of being Indian that, “It’s okay; she’s only half.” I never joined the Indian Club, never went to visit the tribal family advocate hired by the district, and I continued to actively avoid any and all things Indian.

One evening I overheard my aunties talking to my mother, “Shana’s ashamed to be Indian.” And in response my mother declared that I should be proud of who I am. I had no idea how.

And then there was high school United States History.


“Go My Son, Get an Education”

My US history teacher was an impressive man with an even more impressive belly: beloved by the community, this former coach absolutely exuded history. But not tribal history, even though he had a 9-­foot totem pole in his classroom. His only mention of tribal history—let alone local tribal history—was the day he turned his metal classroom trashcan upside down and began beating it like a drum. He chanted, “Go my son, get an education! Go, my son, get off the reservation!”

That is exactly what this little rabbit did.

At Western Washington University, they needed at least four Indian students to start an Indian Student Union. I was number four, and I remained silent. As I began the process of transferring to the University of Washington, I discovered that I could gain entrance through the Educational Opportunity Program. My white friends at Western resented my affirmative action entrance, and even when the BIA Superintendent at the Indian Agency explained that it is not how you get there, it is what you do once you have arrived; I still felt a twinge of inferiority.

At the University of Washington, all of a sudden, I was introduced to Proud Indians. Active Indians, pert-­near Militant Indians. What was I to do now? This whole idea of ethnic pride was utterly foreign to me. I had to do something, be something to prove to others that I was just like them, just as proud and just as vocal. I was still a rabbit, to be sure, but I wore a wolf’s skin in those days.

Well that took me to my first year in teaching. Jesus, I’d found my calling, but when I revealed to others that I was “Native American” (I’d always get the question, “What are you?” when I met new non-­Indian people. Though I could pass for something other than Indian, it was clear that I was not white), I became the go-­to gal for everything from peyote to dream catchers to “Just how authentic is Dances With Wolves anyway?” I, of course, was at a loss. So I went about faking it for awhile, getting my hands on native legends books, anything to cram Indianness into my little rabbit brain.

My journey began in earnest while teaching in the Bay Area.


“If I Don’t, Who Will?”

In addict speak, “I got honest” and I accepted the reality of my past and what I wanted to do for the future. I could spend my time getting angry for the ignorance of my colleagues, I mean, really. How can educated individuals really expect a Plateau Indian to know anything about Plains or Southwestern tribes and traditions? How is it that they truly believe that an Indian is an Indian is an Indian? How presumptive. How rude. Well, I could stay there in that place, thumping my little angry rabbit feet or I could plainly and simply do something about their—and my own—cultural ignorance. I thought to myself, “If I don’t teach, who will?”

My journey, oddly enough, took me to the Bay Area. As you can well imagine, the urban Indian community in San Francisco is large and in charge. And proud. I volunteered at the family center, I went for a sweat in the East Bay (though it became too rainy that day), and I designed a course called “More Than Bows and Arrows” (taken from the documentary film I showed to my classes) to teach about Northern California tribes as well as my own. I enlisted my Auntie Carol (the first in our family to graduate college; I was the second.) who then worked at the Columbia River Intertribal Fish Commission to get me anything and everything about the tribe. She sent me boxes and big manila envelopes full of my history (and by this time I could actually call it my history), full of who I was to become.

Little rabbit me didn’t rabbit anywhere except to my home in Seattle. Not the reservation, but close.

Here I married my childhood sweetheart (whose non-­Indian relatives owned hundreds of those checkerboard squares on my reservation), started my family, and continued my quest.

By this time, I was adept at gathering resources and designing courses. I taught high school English and literature in a small suburban school district just north of Seattle and brought my Auntie into town to speak to my classes about tribal tradition and the sacred salmon. I was making headway, but still only in my little academic fiefdom known as my classroom. In 2000, schools were still funding classroom grants and professional development and so I applied for and received one such grant to include tribal perspectives into our social studies and English departments.

I collected native resources for the social studies department where I taught at that time. I presented it to the department, thinking it would be like Christmas for them. I had worked so hard, and here I was, giving them a binder full of information. After I had presented my gift, I got a bunch of nods, and “Atta boys.” The department dutifully placed the binder of curriculum materials on the shelf in the social studies lounge, and there it remained. Untouched. I have since moved on, and if this binder has not been “recycled,” it has at the very least been “archived,” what happens to resources rendered noteworthy but useless or “outside the scope” of the curriculum. The materials: DVDs, CDs, books, and even a VHS tape or two were housed in our professional library section. Sadly, in 2011 the librarian emailed me and asked if I wanted the materials back, as no one was using them and she wanted them to go to a place where someone just might.

I’d like to give my colleagues the benefit of the doubt, and I think in 2005 I was perfectly willing to do so. Truth is, there are teachers who are open and teachers who are not. And within those ranks are those who are willing to learn and try something new, and those who are perfectly willing to keep with the “tried and true.” The more I do this, the more I think it’s not just that it’s tried and true because, quite frankly, the social studies curriculum that we have tried over the years is decidedly not “true.” At best, it is incomplete; at worst, it is as dismissive as the Ugly American Tourist. As a teacher who has taught elementary, middle, high school, and college, the arrogance scale has its first spike in high school. Teachers’ identities, it seems, gets wrapped up in what they teach. This is especially true of those who teach in AP or IBB programs. I don’t feel badly stating the obvious; I was one of those Ugly Americans.

And it does teachers and our students a disservice to think that any new curriculum is somehow inapplicable or insufficient.

In 2000, I met with the Multicultural Program Director at Shoreline Community College. She said something incredibly liberating and enlightening. She posed that, “Introducing multiple perspectives into your classroom doesn’t make things easier. It makes it harder. It makes it messy.”

I embraced that new messy maxim, and I found new hope in my colleagues, new hope in my goals. But, again, in order to do that I had to “get honest.” Truly, how many times had I gone to a conference, received a beautiful binder full of amazing curriculum only to find that when Monday comes, I’m in a crunch and choose to teach what I’ve always taught. It is easier, less messy, less time consuming. The rabbit had stopped rabbiting away from discomfort and shame, to be sure. Now it was time to rabbit toward something powerful, a place where I could make a difference as an Indian teacher.

I rabbited to the state Capitol.


“I’m Your Huckleberry”

I met with the then director of the Indian Education Office Denny Hurtado. I was his dream. Not because I necessarily had anything of value (though I did), but because I volunteered to be on the committees no one else wanted to be on. And I did it for free. I sat through meeting upon meeting, and then things started happening.

At that time our state assessments office had a “Cultural Fairness” committee to determine the validity of certain state assessment questions. Denny put me on the committee to determine its fairness to Indian kids and other kids of color. From there I found myself on the committee to help write the social studies standards for Washington State. We sent to the state legislature standards that required the inclusion of tribal government whenever teachers taught about any sort of federal, state, county, or municipal government. I do not know if they merely rubber stamped it (my faith in civics and government certainly hopes not) or even if they paid attention, but it was approved.

Those two words—tribal sovereignty—were huge. They were bound to transform how we taught Native history.

But no one noticed.

Washington State’s educational system is based on “local control,” meaning that local district governing bodies (usually school boards) are in charge of how state standards are delivered and what content is included in all the major disciplines. There are 295 public school districts to entrust. But even if they do pay attention, who is going to “enforce” this requirement (to date we really do not have standardized social studies assessments on which to hang this standard)? So, I was back to that old question, but this time I was no longer alone.

This little rabbit could make a difference. In fact, I no longer felt like a rabbit. More like an Otter, industrious, playful, and, well…happy and proud.

“You Gonna Get It Right This Time?”

In one of the many trips I made to the reservation, I was at my Auntie Carol’s office. Now she worked for Yakama Nation Fisheries as their educational outreach director. I ran into a classmate’s father, a big wig in the Nation. I explained my curriculum, what I was doing there, and what I hoped to accomplish. He did one of those incredulous harrumphs. There was silence for what I was sure eleven hours, and then he asked, “You gonna get it right this time?”

“I sure hope so,” was all I stammered (apparently I’m not all Otter yet).

“Hmph. You better.” And then he walked on.

I believe we did get it right. The resulting curriculum project, Since Time Immemorial: Tribal Sovereignty in Washington State, is a curriculum designed to at a minimum complement and at a maximum become the full focus of any social studies lesson taught, grades 3-12. 2005 state legislation strongly encourages school districts to adopt and teach tribal sovereignty and history in the common schools. The curriculum project endeavors to provide everything teachers need to teach tribal sovereignty and tribal history confidently— the materials, the lessons, the support, the research, and where to go for further study.

Three pedagogical bases—inquiry, place and integration—ground the innovative nature of the model. There are 27 tribal sovereignty units for every elementary, middle, and high school U.S. History, Washington State History, and Contemporary World Problems unit that Washington State’s Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction recommends. Within each unit of study are three levels of resources and lessons from which to choose, based on curricular needs and teaching time constraints. The teacher decides how much, to what degree, and how often she includes issues of tribal sovereignty in the social studies units and lessons that she already teaches.

This massive undertaking could not have been possible without the generosities shown by Enough Good People: the tribes whose stories need to be respected and told in a way that is accessible to teachers and students, both Indian and non-Indian alike.


            Honoring Tribal Legacies is one way—an intensely personal, powerful way—to teach not only the common core, but also to teach our students to love, know they are beloved, and know we are connected by time, place, and responsible to everyone and everything around us.

The generosity continues with the National Park Service, who believes in the legitimate place of those stories in history, and this just reinforces the generosity of the writers and editors of this amazing project.

And it is this convergence of generosity that frames my writing, my dedication to this project.

When Dr. Michael Pavel (CHiXapkaid) brought me to this project, I could think of no other place, no other people to honor but Celilo. This place, this sacred place is not dead; it has never been dead. The Otter spirit now so alive inside me sought to bring this place to life for everyone.

Honoring Tribal Legacies is one way—an intensely personal, powerful way—to teach not only the common core, but also to teach our students to love, know they are beloved, and know we are connected by time, place, and responsible to everyone and everything around us.

Otter is proud.