K-12 teachers explore the vibrance of Native American perspectives and people

When Stacie Lawrence began teaching kindergarten in the Salt Lake City School District six years ago, the materials she inherited from the previous teacher included a unit on the first Thanksgiving as told through a European lens. It seemed like “a history I did not yet fully comprehend,” she says. “I wanted more viewpoints.” She chose to forego making feathered headdresses with her students and made turkey handprints instead.

Lawrence, who is non-Native, and many other K-12 teachers work from curricula about Native Americans that portray the lifestyles of people two hundred years ago and could give the impression that Native Americans are extinct, rather than portray the reality of more than 500 sovereign American Indian and Alaskan Native tribes that exist today, each with a living culture.

Cynthia Benally and Connor Warner of the University of Utah College of Education want to change that. In summer 2021, they hosted a four-week workshop for Utah K-12 educators called “Developing Accurate and Inclusive Understandings of Indigenous Peoples.” The workshop, which featured Native guest speakers and discussions about respectful and inclusive teaching will hopefully be a springboard to expand education for teachers about Native cultures.

“We are more than arts and crafts and dancing,” says Benally, who is Diné and a member of the Navajo Nation. “We’re professionals. We’re doctors and professors. We exist in everyday society, we’re part of it and we make an impact in it.”

The workshop was offered as an outgrowth of the College of Education’s Native Education @ the CoE project. Native Ed @ the CoE is dedicated to promoting American Indian/Alaska Native excellence in various academic fields, particularly in education.  The project intends to work collaboratively with American Indian/Alaska Native peoples, notably the eight distinct sovereign nations in Utah, to further their educational goals and self-determination.

The project recognizes the inexact nature of the terms “American Indian” and “Alaska Native,” and the risk that using any such umbrella terms poses for inaccurately homogenizing the experiences of hundreds of distinct peoples and nations. Whenever possible, Native Ed @ the CoE recommends use of the names chosen by individual sovereign nations and culturally distinct peoples themselves.

How the workshop came to be

Benally, an assistant professor in the Department of Education, Culture & Society, grew up in Arizona in areas where she was often the only Native student in her class. “Coming from that experience, I knew what it feels like for Native students to grow up in non-Native areas.” She came to the U after teaching for more than 15 years in Phoenix public schools.

Warner, an associate professor in the Urban Institute for Teacher Education, is a non-Native who grew up in Eastern Montana on and around the Northern Cheyenne Nation, where his parents were teachers in Native-serving schools.  As a high school English and history teacher and department chair, he was part of the district task force charged with updating K-12 curricula to incorporate Native content in all subjects for all students as part of the implementation of Montana’s Indian Education for All constitutional requirement.  These experiences impressed upon him the importance of non-Native students and teachers understanding accurate and respectful information about Native people.

Recently, Benally and Warner, as representatives of Native Ed @ the CoE,  visited the Confederated Tribes of the Goshute Reservation in western Utah to find ways to bring more Natives into U teacher programs. While there, though, they heard how the Goshute leaders wished for the teachers in the nearby Tooele School District to have a better understanding of the Goshute people and other Native issues.

Many Natives have felt the same way. Lamar Spotted Elk is an enrolled member of the Northern Cheyenne Tribe, a U graduate and the assistant principal at Nibley Park School in the Salt Lake City School District. He is also multicultural, with a Northern Cheyenne father and a white mother.

“Both of my worlds are beautifully complex and similar in many ways,” he says, “but it is quite obvious only one of my worlds is given more visibility and opportunity than the other. This has been an absolute tragedy of our country and our schools and classrooms were molded in this tragedy.” If teachers and curricula paint Native societies as existing only in the past, they’re not conveying the relevance of those cultures, he says. “This has profound consequences for how we see American Indians, but it also has profound consequences for how we see ourselves and our collective consciousness.”

Respect, reciprocity, relationships and responsibility

Benally and Warner initially offered 20 seats in the workshop. When all of those were almost immediately snapped up, they opened up five additional seats. Spotted Elk and Lawrence were among those who got a spot.

Participants met over Zoom in four sessions that focused on, in turn, respect, reciprocity, relationships and responsibility with respect to teaching about Native people and cultures in classrooms. Sessions began with introductions to Native epistemology, or ways of knowing, and featured guest speakers including Elizabeth Kronk Warner, dean of the SJ Quinney College of Law at the University of Utah, a citizen of the Sault Ste Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians and an expert on Federal Indian Law, Maurice “Mo” Smith, member of the Navajo Nation and the executive director of the Urban Indian Center of Salt Lake and Damien Jones, a Diné (Navajo) Hataałii (medicine man) and mathematics educator.

One session explained the sovereign nature of tribal nations. Another focused on the importance of land to Native cultures. Other sessions explored collaboration with Native communities and the participants’ own knowledge of Native issues.

“A lot of the teachers were very honest with their thoughts and some of the misconceptions they had and how what we had talked about dispelled some of those misconceptions,” Benally says. Participants expressed what they’d learned in school, from their families or from their religions. Hearing the Native perspective caused them to re-frame those stories.

Lawrence’s stories include growing up with a Native American girl who was placed in their home and who she calls a sister. “I remember my mother cutting my sister’s hair, and seeing her cry.  I knew that having her long hair must have been important to her but I was too young to understand why.”  She also recalls her feelings on learning that the European settlers of Utah bought rights to Utah’s Fish Lake from the Utes for a mere smattering of supplies because the Ute culture had little concept of land ownership. “The older I got the less comfortable I became with my own skin, as if it defined me because of what I felt were the mistakes that had been made, and continued to be made.”

Thanks to the workshop, she’s now connected to resources and other educators that will help her reshape how she teaches her Kindergarteners.

“I want to be able to introduce my students to the legends and stories of the Indigenous peoples of Utah and of America,” she says. “I want them to hear these stories through books written by people who have heard the stories first-hand, I want my students to know that the Native Peoples and Nations exist today. I want to use more diverse materials in my classroom, and I want my students to see themselves in the stories and the lessons that we explore together.”

Spotted Elk was proud to see so many educators, particularly from his own district, sign up for the workshop. “Almost all the educators were non-Native, and it was amazing to see and feel the value and esteem they have for cultures not their own,” he says. “For me, it was validating and affirming to have American Indian ideas and scholarship taught and presented.”

What’s next

Benally and Warner have proposed a graduate certificate called “Working with Native Communities” that would delve into the same topics as the workshop: respect, reciprocity, relationships and responsibility. The proposal is currently working its way through the university approval process. The certificate would also include a capstone experience and courses from Native faculty members.

“It’s at a more in-depth level,” Benally says, with proposed courses in treaties and United States relations with tribal nations as well as the history of Native American education.

I’m very excited and pleased that there is an interest in learning more about native perspectives and native issues,” she adds. “Because we are on Native lands, everything that happens, any topic that you talk about in one way or another is going to impact Native communities. Now teachers will have a better understanding of working with those issues.”

To learn more about Native Education @ the CoE project, contact Connor Warner at  connor.warner@utah.edu or Cynthia Benally at cynthia.benally@utah.edu.

Media Contacts

Cynthia Benallyassistant professor, Department of Education, Culture and Society
Office: 801-587-7814

Connor Warnerassociate professor (clinical), Urban Institute for Teacher Education
Office: 801-581-7158