Midland Curriculum Engages with Indigenous Peoples' Histories

Midland Curriculum Engages with Indigenous Peoples' Histories

Exploration and Integration Beyond Native American History Month

Ellie Moore, Dean of Academics
October 2023

On Indigenous Peoples’ Day, Midland’s Honors U.S. History class helped raise community consciousness about contemporary issues impacting indigenous communities.  Students posted summaries of current events in the U.S. they had researched in common spaces about campus such as resource scarcity on reservations, tribal land reclamation, and the link between the “Indian Boarding School” system and current adoption policies. A group of students visited the local Chumash Intertribal Powwow as well, getting the opportunity to witness powerful celebrations of cultural heritage through dance and drum contests in full brilliant regalia, as well as local native artisans selling their jewelry and leatherworks. 

Chumash Intertribal Powwow

Chumash Intertribal Powwow 2023, Photos by Ellie Moore

As we prepare for Native American Heritage month in November, we wanted to share some of the work Midland students are doing in the classroom to connect with the history, cultures, and issues of the Native Nations, to reckon with the reality that our school sits on stolen Chumash land. This work is an expression of Midland’s Core Competencies of Connection to Place & Environment and Diversity, Equity, Inclusion & Justice – as well as the key discipline-specific skills students need (like Critical Thinking & Analysis) in order to engage with these complex and nuanced topics.

Students gain exposure to First Nations as 9th graders in Midland 101, from both historical and scientific lenses. In an effort to connect new students deeply with this place and its many-layered histories, students learn about the Chumash people, (the first inhabitants of this land beginning 13,000 years ago), from their rich culture and traditions to their deep botanical knowledge. Our Cultural History teacher Steven Hu describes their opening foray in his class this year: “We began by examining how the discovery of human footprints at White Sands, New Mexico sheds light on human migration across the Bering Strait and the peopling of the American continent during the Ice Age 21,000 years ago. This allows students to understand that scientific discovery confirms the validity of Native origin narratives, establishing Native and indigenous people’s long-standing homeworld in the Americas.” In Natural History, students will soon be studying the local plants on our campus, learning both the Western scientific names and the Chumash ethnobotanical uses of the plants.  

After broadening their scope to the complexities of world religions and civilizations in 10th grade, students return to a study of this country in 11th grade with American Literature and U.S. History. These classes are designed to synergistically mirror one another in the sequencing of units, and we begin the year diving into the histories and stories of Native Nations in both classes. American Literature students read Leslie Marmon Silko’s novel “Ceremony,” a story that takes place in the 1950s on the Laguna Reservation in the southwest, and follows a mixed-race (Laguna/White) protagonist’s journey to healing and self-acceptance as he reckons with the legacy of colonialism on personal and societal levels. Students practice close reading strategies to explore Silko’s artful use of indigenous myths and folklore, cyclical (vs. linear) temporal narration, and a complex web of symbols and motifs. In the words of teacher John Babbott, “Through reading and analyzing this text, students are learning the ‘language of association’ in symbols to be able to decipher central unifying messages of the text.” As they practice the “meaning-making” work of analysis, they then continue to build on their ability to support their claims with evidence.  

In U.S. History, students apply the same transferable skills of close reading and analysis to the historical discipline and, in so doing, build the background knowledge they need to better contextualize their readings in both classes. We begin by exploring the vast diversity among Precolumbian Native Nations. Through investigating primary and secondary sources, they find evidence to counter the dominant narrative that Native peoples were “wandering hunters” or, as per Columbus’ diary upon meeting the Arawak peoples in 1492, “they should make good and intelligent servants” and seem to “have no religion” (Diary of Columbus). (Click here to read a student response: Precolumbian Native Nations – Exemplar Response). We comb through history in this first unit from first contact and the frontier wars, into westward expansion and the Indian Removal Act, the reservation system and the Boarding School era, and finish with more modern examples of Native American resistance to colonization such as the American Indian Movement of the 70s, tribal sovereignty, and legislative action like the Indian Child Welfare Act. Throughout the class, students explore issues from multiple perspectives, and practice source evaluation and building a contextualized argument supported by diverse, reliable evidence. 

Chumash Intertribal Powwow, Image by Ellie Moore

Chumash Intertribal Powwow, Image by Ellie Moore

Our goal is that Midland students will graduate competent in the core skills we believe are crucial for success in the world beyond, along with a strong appreciation for diverse experiences and viewpoints, and a deeper understanding of the complexities of social justice. With this background knowledge and core competencies, Midland students are better equipped to approach the places they inhabit with curiosity and respect for the sovereign peoples who have come before them. 

Curious to learn more? Check out this article from NPR (also a 7-minute listen) about Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland’s (the U.S.’s first Native American to serve as cabinet secretary) journey around American to hear from survivors of the Native American Boarding Schools. 

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