In 2018 we asked Patty Timbimboo-Madsen, cultural specialist for the Northwestern Tribe of the Shoshone Nation: “What would you like children in Utah to know about your tribe?” That seemingly simple query launched our Native American Curriculum Initiative and models our guiding principle to honor the Native voice.
We asked that pivotal question because educators had expressed anxiety about teaching Native art forms due to misunderstandings and lack of guidance to navigate varying cultural ideologies. Teachers want to integrate other cultures in sensitive, accurate ways, and without guidance, many hesitated to incorporate native topics. As a partnership committed to inclusive arts experiences, when we turned to local tribes as our primary source of Native knowledge, we found that not only are the artistic expressions of the various peoples excellent vehicles to teach music, art, and dance, but children experience a paradigm shift as they participate in Native arts. We began working with tribal members as equal partners in the creation of educational materials, where tribes have the final say about what is taught about them.
When boundaries are established to decline access to certain aspects of Native American culture, we honor the “no” and embrace indigenous reclamation. For example, of the fifteen lessons created so far, one focuses on the Native American Round Dance, the only dance that can be taught in a classroom, as most dances are ceremonial. According to the wishes of the People, our Round Dance lesson requires a member from the community to help teach the dance and offer cultural context to the learners. Another Navajo/Diné lesson plan in development is about weaving. Though weaving is a world art that all can engage in, Diné weaver Michele Reyes helps students understand the unique role it plays in Navajo culture.
Our initiative partners with the Utah Division of Arts & Museums, who is compiling a roster of Utah Native American Teaching Artists who are then positioned to share their cultural knowledge with organizations and schools. And in turn, this gives organizations and schools access to a vetted pool of Native artists.
But lesson plans and Native artists are not sufficient to bring lasting change into classrooms. Professional development for teachers is key to building this culture of listening and learning. The BYU ARTS Partnership is developing an online workshop designed to help teachers create more culturally responsive learning environments. Workshops presenting NACI curriculum will also be presented in our existing programs, such as the Arts Express Summer Conference, to promote great cultural understanding that will benefit students, educators, and the Native Tribes of Utah. The project models how to approach the study of all native peoples by asking important questions to determine authenticity and cultural appropriateness of educational activities and resources.
Native voices are the heart of our project. As the state’s original inhabitants, they continue to retain their cultural traditions and thrive in the present day as sovereign entities. When envisioning the Native American Curriculum Initiative, BYU ARTS Partnership approached the head of the Division of Indian Affairs, Utah State Board of Education (USBE) Indian Education Department, and Utah’s Title VI coordinators for additional input. Thus far we are actively collaborating with four tribes: the Navajo Nation, the Paiute Indian Tribe of Utah, the Northwestern Band of Shoshone Nation, and the Confederated Tribes of the Goshute Reservation. Plans to begin collaboration with the remaining tribes, the Skull Valley Band of Goshute, the Ute Indian Tribe of the Uintah and Ouray Reservation, the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, and the San Juan Southern Paiute are underway. Each tribe chooses representatives to work side by side with BYU ARTS Partnership arts educators to develop curriculum materials. Lessons are vetted in elementary classrooms and presented to tribal councils and cultural and education departments for review and approval.
We honor the collaboration, energy, and dedication reflected in the many lesson plans that have received tribal approval:
Coyote Steals Fire
I Love the Mountains
Northwestern Shoshone Fish Song
Paiute Alphabet Song
Paiute Federal Recognition and Sovereignty
Paiute Storied Rocks
Paiute Symbols and Logos
Why the Moon Paints Her Face Black
Our hope is that the NACI propels national conversations on cultural appropriation by modeling respectful collaboration and the sharing of cultural arts across diverse communities. We also hope it assists educators and artists to seek understanding and select appropriate cultural content and pedagogy. So what started as a simple question has opened doors, minds, and hearts. The Native American Curriculum Initiative transcends lesson plans and professional development, ideally echoing the words of Sitting Bull: “Let us put our minds together and see what life we can make for our children.”
Brenda Beyal, a Navajo/Diné wife, mother, and teacher, resides in Mapleton, Utah. Brenda taught thirty-two years in a multi-age classroom in the Nebo School District and also worked with Native American students and parents as an advocate and supporter. Brenda regularly performs and teaches as a Native American teaching artist in schools. She currently leads the Native American Arts Initiative for BYU ARTS Partnership. In 2016, Brenda was honored by the Utah Education Network as an American Graduate Champion.
Heather Sundahl is a freelance writer and editor who works for the BYU ARTS Partnership, the Utah Women & Leadership Project, and Mormon Women for Ethical Government, bringing diverse experience and perspectives to educational conversations. Recently moved from Boston, she lives in Provo, Utah with her husband, children, and cats.