By Jerome Tharaud/Havre Daily Newsfirstname.lastname@example.org
From her small office in Lincoln-McKinley Primary School, Avis Chenoweth is trying to finish a puzzle.
Chenoweth, who previously worked as the school district's home school coordinator, was hired in November to coordinate the school district's Indian education program.
"It's like the curriculum is this big puzzle and there are pieces left out," she said. "We're just putting in the pieces."
Her job is to examine Havre's social studies curriculum in grades K-12 and find a way to integrate more and better teaching materials about American Indians into it.
It's not an easy task. Chenoweth said she has contacted hundreds of people around the state to collect different examples of American Indian curricula, drawing from school districts in Great Falls, Bozeman and Billings, as well as agencies like the state Office of Public Instruction.
Chenoweth, who is a member of the Chippewa Cree Tribe, has also been spending time in Havre classrooms, looking at the resources now used at each grade level to teach Indian culture. She is trying to identify more resources, and in some cases, more appropriate resources.
"To just study Indians is kind of hard because there's so many different tribes, and different tribes believe different things," she said. The thing to avoid, she said, are materials that lump them all together.
Chenoweth said that if a class has children from five different tribes, she wants to make sure the teacher has been given the basic knowledge and materials to be able to teach about those tribes.
"The teachers are just very, very supportive," Chenoweth said. "We want to get away from the stereotype, and for all the students to know that there are Indians still today" who have their own traditions and customs.
Chenoweth said she will probably be doing the research phase of her job until the first of the year. Then she'll start organizing the different curriculum models she has collected, and working with other resource people to draft an Indian education policy that state law requires all school boards to put in place.
Eventually she will help the district draft a curriculum.
"When we're all done with this we'll have a curriculum ... that includes Native American studies," Chenoweth said. "Hopefully we'll have the best one in the state."
But before the district can begin teaching the students, it will start teaching the teachers by bringing in experts to give workshops about Indian education.
HPS assistant superintendent Dennis Parman, who is director of the district's American Indian education program, said he wants to focus on two areas of professional development for teachers: one to give teachers better background in teaching American Indian students, and one to insure accuracy of curriculum content that deals with American Indians.
Parman said the district will be reviewing its social studies curriculum next year as part of an ongoing review of all of its subject areas, and that the curriculum can be changed then to incorporate the Native American materials.
"Social studies is really a primary subject where the issues related to Native Americans occur," he said, and those issues are especially relevant in Havre.
"Somewhere around 20 percent of our student population is American Indian students," Parman said. "That's a primary cultural factor within our schools."
Parman said the revised social studies curriculum should be ready for the 2005-2006 school year.
Chenoweth said she does not want the new material to be a burden, or just one more thing teachers have to fit in. Rather, she wants the material to be integrated into the normal social studies curriculum, because the Indians themselves are part of history, not just a footnote.
"When you teach Montana history, the Indians are just there," she said.
Many history classes do teach about Indians, but often it is part of a separate unit rather than being integrated, she said.
Chenoweth also emphasized that goal of the curriculum is to teach all children, not just Indians.
"All children will benefit from this, not just Native American children," she said. "We're going to learn about each other and hopefully get along better."
Indian education is not just an elective for school districts: It's the law. A state law passed in 1999 entitled "Indian Education for All" requires school districts to review their curricula "to ensure the inclusion of the distinct and unique cultural heritage of the American Indians." It also requires the school board to pass a written policy incorporating Indian culture into district education goals.
The law contains a list of social studies standards for grades four, eight and 12. Fourth graders, for example, should be able to identify characteristics of the Montana tribes and other cultural groups in the state and to identify leaders in all levels of government, including tribal.
"Out at Rocky Boy probably everybody knows who Alvin Windy Boy is, and they should know that here too," Chenoweth said, adding that tribal government is often not covered in government classes. Alvin Windy Boy is the tribal chair of the Chippewa Cree tribe.
Standards for eighth-graders include being able to identify "the significance of tribal sovereignty and Montana tribal governments' relationship to local, state and federal governments," to explain some different ways that historical events like the American Revolution and the Battle of the Little Big Horn can be interpreted, and to discuss tensions between racial and ethnic groups in Montana and beyond.
The law says 12th-graders should, among other things, be able to analyze contemporary tribal issues like gambling, natural resources and language, and to discuss "the conflicts resulting from cultural assimilation and cultural preservation among various ethnic and racial groups in Montana, the United States and the world."
There are also a smaller set of benchmarks for the arts, and there is also a provision for American Indian language.
Chenoweth said only a handful of districts in the state have complied with the law so far, so HPS is ahead of the game.
"There's just so much to this job and it's just starting, and I don't know where it's going to go. But when this is all finished, what we will have done is implemented a law of the state of Montana. We as a community should be really proud of the fact that we are working on this and embracing it."