It’s a weekday in mid-September, and most of the students on my reservation are out of school for the day. This free time for students is business as usual for teachers and administrators, who honor a gentleman’s agreement to attend the teacher training day provided by the Tribal Education Department of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes. These tribes reside here on the Flathead Reservation, in part of their aboriginal homeland, and the core of my students belong to these tribes.
This day is crucial for teachers new to our community to learn about the culture and history of the tribes, and supports veteran teachers by helping them renew their commitment to the students of this community. When teachers incorporate culturally relevant instruction here, it’s not just a nod to the place where we live; it’s full inclusion of students and affirmation of their heritage. This is the story of a school district that has made so many of the right moves.
Integrating Tribal Culture
First, the Arlee School District has long served as a flagship for districts across the state in the integration of tribal culture and mainstream curriculum. Teachers in our elementary classrooms regularly use Salish words to give students directions, teach them Salish numbers and use Salish names for months, months whose names correspond to seasonal rounds and events. It’s not a dual language program, but it does provide enrichment and a dynamic acknowledgement of the culture surrounding us.
Students also learn specifically and deeply about culture and history in Salish language class and Indian Studies classes, required in grades K-6 and offered throughout grades 8-12. These classes are taught by Native American instructors possessing the appropriate cultural training, teaching licenses and community knowledge.
In fifth grade, students do a close read of the Hellgate Treaty, which created our reservation, and discuss it in a Socratic circle: “Was it a good idea to sign this treaty?” “What did the tribe gain and lose as a result of this treaty?”
Our upper-grade teachers also make a coordinated effort to incorporate tribally sensitive topics and lessons that emphasize the importance of place into our curriculum. For example, the high school biology teacher and I co-teach the novel Wind from an Enemy Sky, a tribally authored historical fiction chronicling the Little Elk tribe’s struggle with the construction of a hydroelectric dam and the reservation-wide system for irrigating homesteaders’ fields. This unit incorporates history, science, and language arts within the framework of cultural relevance.
Why is all this so important?
When Native American parents comment that incorporating their children’s culture into the daily routine makes a difference to them, you hear why it’s important. When former students come back from college to serve their community, because it’s a healthy place to live, you understand why it’s important. When a student transfers from another school and tells you, “I’ve never seen myself in a book before this class,” then you feel why it’s important.