Since Time Immemorial: Tribal Sovereignty Education in Washington State

Alexandra Rawlings*

Since European settlers arrived on Turtle Island (North America), they have attempted to assimilate and exterminate the Indigenous peoples of this land. The United States government policy of “kill the Indian, save the man” aimed to eradicate Native languages, sacred knowledge, and family (and thereby governmental) structure, and replace them with those of the colonizer. Just as Native education policy was once embedded in the broader colonial agenda of “civilization,” Tribal leaders today call for reforms to Native education with the ultimate goal of strengthening and protecting tribal sovereignty. Recent legislation in Plateau and Coast Salish Territory (Washington State) offers a promising model for answering these calls of Tribal leaders, though it is still only one step forward in building the future that will benefit the next seven generations. Before delving into the specifics of this state-level education initiative, we should first revisit the history of Native education policy in the U.S. in order to properly contextualize these efforts.


Assimilation Era Boarding Schools

The purpose of Federal Indian policy in the late nineteenth century was to bring “civilization” to the indigenous inhabitants of Turtle Island. Religious authorities, and later, the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), established off-reservation boarding schools removing Native children from their families, homelands, and tribes. Settler educators believed that such removal was necessary in order to teach Native children to abandon their savage Indian ways and integrate into settler society as civilized people. Native children who attempted to retain their heritage by speaking their mother tongue or practicing Native religious ceremonies were severely punished with beatings. Boarding schools were an attempt to “kill the Indian and save the child” by forcibly stripping away Native identity and culture, and providing “useful” vocational education. Note that these boarding schools have never closed, but rather have transferred administration.


Tribal Self-Determination Era Federal Legislation

In the 1960s, Federal Indian policy began to shift from one of assimilation and termination to one of Tribal self-determination.  Congress first expressed its commitment to Native education in the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). A few years later, Congress passed the Indian Education Act of 1972 and established the Office of Indian Education within the Department of Education. The Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act of 1975 provided for tribes to gain greater control over BIA funded schools. In 2001, the ESEA was amended and reauthorized by the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). The NCLB added Title VII to the ESEA which provides additional funding to address the “unique educational and culturally-related academic needs” of Native students. The NCLB was replaced in 2015 by the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), and remains the primary source of federal funding for K-12 education.

Despite the best intentions of Congress, these pieces of legislation have failed to significantly improve educational experiences and achievement among Native students. Major reports since 1928 demonstrate little improvement in the education of Native children, particular in regard to tribal cultures and identities through adequate Native language instruction. U.S. Senate reports do not mention the pernicious history of boarding schools, and instead tout a “centuries-old tradition of attempting to ensure the education of Native children.” No doubt this refusal to acknowledge the violent history of Native education severely limits the conversation on appropriate remedies.


The Current Landscape

Growing numbers of Native peoples live off reservation, particularly those of mixed ancestry. The educational needs of Native students, however, do not stop at the reservation boundary, and states play an increasingly significant role in educating Native students. Currently only 7% of Native students attend BIA schools, while the overwhelming majority (93%, or approximately 620,000) attend state public schools. In Washington State, Native American and Alaska Native students (including those of mixed ancestry) comprise 6.2% of the K-12 school student population (approximately 64,000 students). These students are spread out across Washington’s 322 public school districts, with the vast majority (296 districts) reporting at least one Native student enrolled in their district. For many years, these school districts have failed to meet the educational needs of Native students: Native students have the lowest on time and extended graduation rates, and they have the highest annual drop-out rate of approximately 25%.


Since Time Immemorial: Tribal Sovereignty Education in Plateau & Coast Salish Schools

In response to these alarming statistics, failed proposed federal legislation, and the calls of Tribal leaders, Washington lawmakers passed a law in 2005 “encouraging” school districts to collaborate with local tribes to teach tribal history and culture. In the following years, the Tribal Leaders Congress on Education, the Washington State School Directors Association, and the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) developed tribal sovereignty curriculum, Since Time Immemorial: Tribal Sovereignty in Washington State, and made the lessons available for public use. The Since Time Immemorial curriculum was subsequently approved by all 29 of the federally recognized tribes in Washington State.

However, only three school districts and a handful of additional schools voluntarily adopted the new curriculum and made efforts to consult with local tribes. In 2015, the state legislature passed a new law “[r]equiring Washington’s tribal history, culture, and government to be taught in the common schools,” rather than merely encouraging it. Tribal sovereignty education is now mandatory in Washington State public schools. The 2015 legislation marks a clear departure from the 2005 law that couched its goals primarily in terms of “closing the achievement gap” between Native and non-Native students. In contrast, the language of the new legislation is rooted in commitment to tribal sovereignty, and acknowledges the importance of Native students’ educational experiences relative to that commitment. The curriculum itself provides information and lesson plans that facilitate learning with native peoples rather than about them. It is aimed at helping students answer five central questions:

  1. How does physical geography affect the distribution, culture, and economic life of local tribes?
  2. What is the legal status of tribes who negotiated or who did not negotiate settlement for compensation for the loss of their sovereign homelands?
  3. What were the political, economic, and cultural forces consequential to the treaties that led to the movement of tribes from long established homelands to reservations?
  4. What are ways in which Tribes respond to the threats and outside pressure to extinguish their cultures and independence?
  5. What do local Tribes do to meet the challenges of reservation life; and as sovereign nations, what do local Tribes do to meet the economic and cultural needs of their Tribal communities?

The depth and complexity of materials provided to students increases with each grade level. In addition to providing the tribal sovereignty curriculum, the Office of Native Education and the OSPI provide trainings to assist educators in successful implementation of the new curriculum, and provide curriculum support materials, compatible for use with Since Time Immemorial. Though schools are required to utilize Since Time Immemorial lessons, they are allowed, and even encouraged, to modify elements to ground the lessons in a particular locality.

To facilitate this grounding effort, and to strengthen relationships with local tribes, the OSPI provides a list of the name(s) of the closest tribe(s) to each school district, as well as the contact information for each of the 29 federally recognized tribes in Washington State. Now when reviewing or adopting new social studies curriculum, school districts are required to incorporate the tribal history, culture, and government of the nearest federally recognized tribe, and must work collaboratively with the tribes to develop materials and programs.

Forming these crucial relationships has reportedly been the most challenging aspect of implementing the curriculum so far. During the first year of its mandatory instruction, only 30% of Washington school districts taught the Since Time Immemorial curriculum. However, these numbers appear to be rising and engagement with tribes and creation of unique, local programming is only growing.


The Future of Reparations, Education, and Tribal Sovereignty

Much of the language of federal and state legislation directed at improving the education of Native youth has been couched in terms of “closing the achievement gap” between Native and non-Native students. However, it should be very clear that these statistics should be used as “a launching point to examine the multi-dimensional phenomenon of race in Washington,” and not a definitive paradigm. Tribal leaders urge that classifying Native students as “deficient” because they do not perform the same way as their white peers within a colonial institution presents significant bias toward white, male, middle class values. Normative definitions of success and achievement do not escape these biases.

Rather than framing the goal as improving the education of Native students in order to close the achievement gap, Tribal leaders emphasize the unique status of Native youth as dual citizens and future leaders. This unique status necessitates a government-to-government relationship between schools and tribes as required by the Washington state statute. In addition to enhancing the educational experience of Native students, tribal sovereignty education provides the groundwork to shift the mainstream consciousness regarding tribes, encouraging greater protection of tribal sovereignty by non-Natives, too.

In recent decades, the prevailing myth of the uninhabited, pristine New World and the “no-fault history” that it invokes has provided the basis for dismissing Indigenous claims for decolonization, nationhood, and sovereignty. Erasure of the indigenous peoples of Turtle Island renders these claims invalid and unnecessary in the minds and actions of policy makers, judges, and citizens. Conversely, honoring treaties, repatriation, and payment of reparations will require extensive education and all of our full support and active participation.

Collaboration has been an essential element at all stages of implementing tribal sovereignty education in Washington State: the political work of passing the legislation, the curriculum development, and the ongoing government-to-government relationships between tribes and schools. Reparations in the form of full embrace of tribal sovereignty will likewise be a collective process. While mandatory tribal sovereignty education is a landmark step forward, reparations in this context are far from complete.

Assimilation era policies and boarding schools were an attempt to eradicate Native cultures, Native resistance, and tribal sovereignty. That effort failed and Tribal leaders today advocate for education that incorporates tribal participation at every level – from legislation to classroom discussion. Tribal sovereignty requires not only Native voices in the content of curriculum, but the active cultivation of government-to government relationships between schools and tribes. The Since Time Immemorial legislation provides a promising model for cultivating these relationships beyond formal educational institutions and brings us closer to a society that recognizes the inherent legitimacy of Indigenous peoples and their right to sovereignty.

*Alexandra Rawlings is a 3L at Harvard Law School.

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