Sokaogon Chippewa Community News

Wisconsin Law Says Kids Must be Taught Native American Issues, but Teachers Say They Don’t Know How

Heather Ann Moody once spent two hours poring over the pages of her daughter’s eighth-grade history book, looking for the word sovereignty.

Sovereignty, the constitutional right of Native American tribes in the U.S. to make and be governed by their own laws, is at the crux of their identity. It’s what makes tribes their own political nations, not just members of a cultural group. It’s the defining feature of indigenous issues past and present.

So when her daughter told her that the book didn’t even mention the word, Moody, a professor of American Indian Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire and an enrolled member of Wisconsin’s Ho-Chunk Nation, didn’t believe her.

But sure enough, it wasn’t there.

Photo by Ebony Cox, USA Today Network-Wisconsin

It wasn’t the first time one of her children’s projects had badly generalized or misrepresented Native American heritage, despite a state law that’s meant to ensure schools and teachers know better.

A few years earlier, her now-11-year-old son was sent home with a paper cutout that he was instructed to dress up as a Pilgrim or a Native American, disregarding the fact that there is no one “Native American” style of dress.

And when she visits classrooms to speak to kids about indigenous issues, she’s heard questions like “What do Indians trade with?” and she’s been asked if she has a stove.

Wisconsin is one of only 12 states to require that Native American content be taught in the K-12 system, and it has a law on the books called Act 31 that lays out what should be taught and when, and what teachers need to know about the topic before they enter the classroom.

That, combined with the fact that Wisconsin is home to 11 federally recognized tribes, means the state should be quite good at sharing the history and cultures of its Native nations with students.

But there’s no consistency to how it’s taught, and there are no clear consequences for school districts that don’t follow the law.

Even after three decades, the law has failed to break a cycle that undermines the quality of teaching about Native Americans: Aspiring teachers who have received little to no education about indigenous peoples enter college. They get a rundown of the Act 31 standards, but the amount of time spent on the topic varies widely from institution to institution. And then they’re back in the classroom, some still lacking knowledge of Native American issues – only now, they have to teach them.

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