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Native American educators build resources for new Illinois education curriculum

Native American students dance at a summer camp in Chicago.
Peter Medlin
Native American students dance at a summer camp in Chicago.

175 years ago, Potawatomi Chief Shab-eh-nay left his home in DeKalb County to visit family in Kansas. He returned home to find the U.S. government had illegally sold 1,280 acres of his northern Illinois land.

The U.S. Department of the Interior recently placed portions of that land into a trust for the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation.

Raphael Wahwassuck is a member of the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation Tribal Council with a family connection to Chief Shab-eh-nay.

“He's my grandfather, you know," he said, "about five or six generations removed."

Wahwassuck recently helped lead a workshop in Naperville for Illinois educators to make sure they’re prepared to teach the state’s new mandate to teach Native American history, tribal sovereignty, genocide, and more.

Rose Miron also helped lead the workshop with Wahwassuck. She’s a non-native historian and Director of the D’Arcy McNickle Center for American Indian and Indigenous Studies at The Newberry Library in Chicago.

The Newberry, along with individual tribes and other organizations, have spent the past year or so developing curricular resources for teachers -- including as many primary sources as possible. Miron says students will have plenty of photos, documents, books and other resources to explore.

And the sources will range from the late 17th Century to interviews they conducted last year.

“We've also created half a dozen digital maps that map the history of Chicago in various ways, with indigenous perspectives front and center,” said Miron. “And then we are also conducting oral histories with community members. We've conducted interviews with about 55 people so far. We're going to be working to include those sources within the curriculum as well.”

The curriculum is not chronological, like you might expect from a history class, because the curriculum covers a lot more than just history. Instead, Miron says it’s organized thematically so teachers can weave in lessons throughout the year.

“For instance, one of the curriculum modules is about activism and resistance," she said. "So, we could have somebody talking about different activism that they have been involved in the last few decades. And then also, within that module, content about the Battle of Fort Dearborn."

The Battle of Fort Dearborn was the bloody conflict between Potawatomi warriors and federal troops in what is now Chicago during the War of 1812.

Aaron Golding is a member of the Seneca Nation and co-chair of the education committee for the Chicago American Indian Community Collaborative, which has also helped develop the curriculum.

He says as the fall approaches, they’ve moved from curriculum development to training and implementation, with events like the recent workshop.

“We've been partnering with ISBE [Illinois State Board of Education] to release a survey for K-12 teachers," said Golding, "that will gather some feedback about just where they are in their comfort level and understanding of Native history, so we can then use that information to help tailor professional development opportunities."

Soon, they hope to have the survey results. And they hope to develop a hub website with links to resources for educators teaching this for the first time. The Newberry holds several different seminars with Native educators, but the site will also have links to tools from universities, the Field Museum, Miami of Oklahoma, and other Native tribes.

Even though the Newberry curriculum isn’t quite finalized yet, a small group of teachers have been piloting a version of it this year. Miron says they’ve reached about 700 students so far and she says they’ve been really excited about the content -- especially because it’s Chicago-focused.

“I think that anytime you're giving students local content, it's easier for them to just grab onto and really connect with," she said, "because they're familiar with a lot of the places that we're talking about."

So far, she says the biggest challenge they’re hearing from teachers is that they wish they had more time to dive into the lessons.

“We're hoping to kind of create some pathways within the curriculum," Miron said, "to sort of say, ‘Okay, if you have 15 minutes, you could do this, if you have an hour, and you can do a whole lesson, this is an option for you,’ and just trying to create some choose-your-own-adventure formatting so it's a bit easier for teachers to implement."

Wahwassuck also knows that not many educators learned about this during their teacher prep programs, but has some advice:

“Don't let yourself feel overwhelmed, because there's a lot of nuance," he said. "There are 574 federally recognized tribal nations and each one has a different history. Each one has a different culture. Each one has different laws for their own lands and for their own nations. When you look that broadly, it can seem overwhelming. Rely on the trusted resources in the area. And, if you have questions, please don't hesitate to ask.”

Last summer, Golding met with a group of Native & non-native educators and community leaders to develop a series of principles that the education resources would be rooted in.

“One of the principles that we came up with," he said, "was ‘a commitment to native futures and presence.’”

Especially “the future” — that native people are not just a part of the past and present of Illinois, but also the future.

“Native people are often not able to imagine themselves in the future because of a lack of historical knowledge of native histories,” said Golding. “And, so, seeing someone seeing oneself in the future as a native person is really important.”

He hopes that this education legislation, along with other new Native-focused laws, and federal recognition of the Prairie Band Potawatomi as a tribal nation in the state, show Illinois students that Native people have always been here, are here now, and will be an important part of the state’s future.

Peter joins WNIJ as a graduate of North Central College. He is a native of Sandwich, Illinois.