A fresh take on Native American history

"Since Time Immemorial" partners school districts with tribes

10/13/2016 | TACOMA, Washington

​Four days before his death in 1877, Crazy Horse, the famed Oglala Sioux war chief, smoked a pipe with Lakota holy man Sitting Bull and described a beautiful vision of the future.

“I see a time of Seven Generations when all the colors of mankind will gather under the Sacred Tree of Life and the whole Earth will become one circle again,” the great warrior said. “In that day, there will be those among the Lakota who will carry knowledge and understanding of unity among all living things and the young white ones will come to those of my people and ask for this wisdom."

Nearly 140 years later – or just about seven generations – Crazy Horse’s vision lives, in an educational initiative from the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction and Washington’s 29 federally recognized Indian tribes. The program, “Since Time Immemorial,” partners school districts around the state with local tribes to teach with the tribes–as opposed to teaching about them.

“The intent is to include tribal histories and perspective, and the concepts and history of tribal sovereignty in the public schools,” said David Syth, Indian education coordinator for Tacoma Public Schools and a member of the Crow Nation. “It’s also intended to partner with local tribes in sharing the rich tribal histories and integrate that into our existing Washington state history curriculum.”

“Since Time Immemorial” splits questions about geography, economics, history, race relations and comparative government into units appropriate for elementary, middle and high school audiences. The curriculum also seeks to address the distortions and filters imposed by the old truism that the winners write the history books–and the tribes, in nearly all cases, lost. The westward expansion and doctrine of Manifest Destiny among white American settlers subsumed the entire North American continent, as well as millions of native people, dozens of cultures and even languages.

The curriculum design fits easily into existing lesson plans and covers social studies and tribal perspectives on local historical events. The program begins with a basic overview of tribal sovereignty and Indian history before moving on to the local tribes in each area, and teachers have the freedom to adapt their lessons and introduce the materials to their students as they see fit.

Dr. Laura Lynn, from the Superintendent of Public Instruction’s Native Education office, said mistrust among the tribes, particularly of public education, presents a challenge when developing the local partnerships so vital to Since Time Immemorial’s success. Over the last 100 years, many Native American children forcibly sent to boarding schools had their culture and heritage suppressed.

“It was the law that native children were removed from their homes,” said Lynn. “Children could not speak their languages, their appearance was changed, their clothes taken away, hair cut. They were trained for menial jobs—farming, and what we would call the domestic trades. Native children were severely punished if they so much as spoke their language. Imagine being a five-year-old taken away from your family and beaten for speaking your tribal language. This is a remembered time for many of our elders today. So the distrust with the school systems remain, and it’s our responsibility to bridge that, which is part of the reason Since Time Immemorial was created. We know we could just introduce any curriculum and muck it up again. That’s not what this is intended for.”

Cultural differences and centuries of one-sided retelling of history permeate the curriculum itself as well as the obstacles each district–and tribe–will face in developing the necessary rapport and relationships to make the program a success, Lynn said.

“There are very long and complex conversations that need to take place with the tribes in every community,” she added. “The tribe will listen deeply and process, but then will take their time deciding who is the best person to share, and what they will share. It might not always be what you asked for, but the tribe has to decide what they are willing to share. Think of it as government-to-government work. Developing relationships takes time.”

Tacoma’s nearest tribal neighbor is the Puyallup Tribe, and Syth anticipates the district and tribe will work closely on the new material.

“I do some work with their historic preservation office,” he said. “They’ve done presentations for me out in our classrooms. Full implementation of Since Time Immemorial is going to be a larger endeavor.”

Syth added that Since Time Immemorial will also help erase the mistaken notion of all Native Americans as one homogenous bloc of people.

“Even around here, people think of the coastal tribes, the Salish tribes, as all one group with one set of customs,” he said. “The fact is, they’re all different. People need to understand that each tribe is individual and unique among themselves. What I’ve learned in my experience is, I do not try to speak for any tribe.”