Native American community to help develop curriculum for Lawrence school district in ‘groundbreaking’ effort
photo by: Dylan Lysen
Community members are working with the Lawrence school district to create an Indigenous curriculum, a first for the district and a significant step for Native American residents who have been pushing for more representation for years.
The effort dates back to 2017, when Lawrence school district parent Carole Cadue-Blackwood — who was later elected to the school board in 2019 — led a campaign that resulted in the name of South Middle School being changed to honor Olympian Billy Mills, Oglala Lakota (Sioux), who attended Haskell Institute and the University of Kansas. Cadue-Blackwood, a citizen of the Kickapoo Tribe also affiliated with the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation, said there has always been a need for such a curriculum, but it took recent negative events for people to pay attention.
Cadue-Blackwood said a committee to develop the curriculum was formed as part of the name change for what’s now known as Billy Mills Middle School. But she said the curriculum effort began to pick up more momentum recently after controversial remarks from state officials drew attention to the issue. In February, Kansas Education Commissioner Randy Watson made comments about “Indians raiding,” and in March state Rep. John Wheeler equated a gavel with a tomahawk when Rep. Ponka-We Victors-Cozad was presiding over the House, the first known time a Native American lawmaker had done so, according to the Associated Press.
In addition, Cadue-Blackwood said the name change at South Middle School came after a South teacher was suspended amid allegations of racist comments.
“Both the name change and the curriculum, they did not gain steam or momentum until something negative happened, and that’s when people finally pay attention,” Cadue-Blackwood said. “Something negative had to happen. It has always been there, but nobody paid attention.”
photo by: Ashley Hocking
Referencing the recent comments by Watson and Wheeler, Cadue-Blackwood said she didn’t fault either of the men, who both grew up in Kansas, but instead the educational system that has not done enough to teach students about Indigenous people.
“You see the need for it,” Cadue-Blackwood said. “Because everywhere you turn, history doesn’t start until Columbus set foot on Turtle Island … We were here long before Kansas was a state.”
As a school board member, Cadue-Blackwood will not be directly involved in the creation of the curriculum, but she said the board will eventually review and approve the curriculum. The curriculum is being developed by the Indigenous Knowledge and Curriculum Committee, and the process will involve district staff, Lawrence residents and Native American community members and scholars, according to the district. The now years-long process has been delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic and other factors, and committee members hope now is the time when it will have the support and momentum to move forward.
‘Representation is everything’
While those involved with the effort to develop the curriculum say that learning about Indigenous history, people and culture is important for all students, they say it is especially crucial for Native American students.
Instruction and Curriculum Coach Annette Kenoly and Native American Student Services coordinator Kenneth St. Pierre will both be involved in the effort from the district’s side of things. St. Pierre, Ihanktonwan/Yankton Sioux, said he faced racism growing up and was made to feel that it was not good to be Indigenous. He said having such a curriculum would have been impactful in his own life.
“Growing up, I always heard stereotypes about Indigenous people and this made me feel ashamed of who I was,” St. Pierre said in an emailed response to questions. “I faced negativity every day.”
photo by: Lawrence school district
One of the community members involved in the committee has been Cadue-Blackwood’s father, Steve Cadue, who is an advocate for Indigenous issues. In addition to being on the committee, Cadue has worked to build momentum for the effort by gathering letters of support from Lawrence residents and others. Cadue has written that developing a curriculum that accurately reflects the experience of Native Americans is important for representation and transforming false narratives about Native Americans. Cadue told the Journal-World that’s important for Native American students but also for society as a whole.
“Indian history is America’s history, and it just hasn’t been taught in the public school system,” Cadue said.
photo by: contributed
St. Pierre said the way he was able to get away from the racism and negativity he experienced growing up was by being good at sports. He said while a majority of the negativity then stopped, it made him feel like non-Native students only accepted him because of his athletic ability and that he was being treated in a class above other Indigenous students for that reason. He said it wasn’t until he moved to Lawrence to go to Haskell Indian Nations University that his perspective changed, and he thinks having Indigenous curriculum and teachers when he was growing up would have made a difference for him on both an academic and a personal level.
“I think if I had a teacher who looked like me and was able to teach about Indigenous history, I probably would have cared more about school,” St. Pierre said. “When I went to Haskell Indian Nations University is when I truly found my identity and felt proud to be Indigenous.”
Cadue-Blackwood said she also thinks such a curriculum would have made a difference in her life. She recently completed her master’s degree, becoming the first among her siblings to do so, and she said she thinks she would have realized earlier the different career paths that were open to her. Personally, she said it could have changed the trajectory of her life, and that research by the American Psychological Association shows all Native American children would similarly benefit.
“When students of color see themselves in the curriculum, particularly Native Americans, it changes their self-confidence,” Cadue-Blackwood said. “It’s the inclusion, it’s the representation. Representation is everything.”
‘Right some of the wrongs’
St. Pierre, who worked as a social studies teacher at Free State High School before beginning his new position as Native American Student Services coordinator this month, said in his hiring announcement from the district that he was looking forward to collaborating with community partners on the creation of an Indigenous curriculum.
He later said the goal was to have a curriculum that fully and accurately represents Indigenous people.
“I think the overall goal is to right some of the wrongs that Indigenous people have had to endure, show our Indigenous students that we support them, and to share our culture and who we are as Indigenous people with our community,” St. Pierre said.
Cadue-Blackwood said some of the topics the curriculum could cover include the tribes of Kansas, treaties with those and other tribal nations, Indigenous language, and the history and impact of boarding schools. Cadue-Blackwood said she barely speaks Kickapoo, and that was by design, a result of the physical punishment that Native American children endured in boarding schools for speaking their languages. That includes at the former Haskell boarding school in Lawrence, where she said there are records of one student having sewing pins pushed through her tongue for speaking her language and another student being thrown against a wall, resulting in a broken arm.
“When you learn about boarding schools, one of the pieces that’s hard for any of our people to talk about is how language erasure is marked on all of our people,” Cadue-Blackwood said.
St. Pierre said the district uses specific criteria, known as the Culturally Sustaining Resource Criteria, to help evaluate resources from an equity perspective, looking for things like a balance of power, the presentation of multiple sides of complex issues, accurate representation of diverse cultures, and social norms free of stereotypes. He said the district wants resources to empower students to consider multiple perspectives, think critically and explore social inequity issues.
“The curriculum should represent who we are as Indigenous people,” St. Pierre said. “We are more than hunters and gatherers; we have a culture that is rich in oral history, story telling, and beautiful languages.”
The process to create the curriculum has seen delays in the five years since it began, but advocates hope that the effort will get the attention and support needed to move forward.
Initially, the curriculum was focused on Billy Mills himself and was taught at Billy Mills Middle School specifically. Kenoly, the district’s instruction and curriculum coach, said that after the school’s name change, the committee involved did additional work to develop projects centered on Mills and curriculum units in Indigenous history for the middle school, which were then provided to teachers at the school. Kenoly said she believes the pandemic interrupted the teaching of the units at Billy Mills Middle School, and the committee later requested to update the units, a process she began working on last fall.
Kenoly said she subsequently convened a larger committee late last fall that included district staff and the community-based committee, and they met four or five times last school year. She said the larger committee identified three commitments, including a review of the current fourth- and seventh-grade social studies units and a review of the high school Native American History course to provide additional resources or units of study of Indigenous history. The other two initiatives are the creation of an annual Billy Mills celebration and study units for the middle school, and a recommendation for a land acknowledgment approved by Native American Student Services.
Cadue said Native American knowledge is mainly learned or discussed at home, provided to children by their parents, and teaching Indigenous knowledge in public schools would be groundbreaking. He said there are few if any models for developing Indigenous curriculum, but he thought Lawrence was in a particularly good position to lead the effort because of Haskell Indian Nations University and the wealth of information it represents. Cadue said the committee went dormant amid the pandemic and scheduling among district staff and the committee has been a challenge since starting back up. He and other committee members have urged the school district to continue its commitment to the effort and its facilitation of the committee’s meeting schedule.
“Indigenous knowledge and curriculum is so groundbreaking we can’t afford any lessening of commitment to the work that lies ahead of us,” Cadue said. “We have a great challenge ahead of us.”
The process has also received a recent leg up from outside the district: a grant from the Kansas Health Foundation to support the curriculum development. Cadue said the fact that the grant was awarded and the efforts of the people involved to get the grant, including University of Kansas researchers, were significant.
“This indicates that even though we are in the development stage, important groups in society are hearing us, they are listening to us and they want to help us,” Cadue said.
The University of Kansas Institute for Policy & Social Research received the grant to support the curriculum development, and Lindsay Elliott Jorgenson, an associate researcher with the institute, will be the principal investigator leading the grant. Jorgenson said in an email that the funds will be used to support the curriculum development and evaluate its impact. Jorgenson, who grew up in Kansas, said that she had no such education and that the work on the curriculum would be vital in ensuring that students graduating from public schools were equipped with an accurate understanding of the experiences of Indigenous peoples.
“Without these kinds of comprehensive curricular efforts, our community will perpetuate a narrative of Indigenous invisibility,” Jorgenson said. “That has already caused enough harm.”
Jorgenson said though the grant is small — only about $7,500 — it represents a starting place for the effort.
As far as when the district anticipates the curriculum will be complete, Kenoly said that is totally dependent on the pace of the committee’s work. She said she is working on scheduling the committee’s first meeting for this school year, and logistics will depend on the format of the committee, as well as her availability and the availability of district staff members and community members. Depending on those factors, she said the committee may be able to complete some units this school year.