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New Curricula to Set the Story Straight About Native American History in Illinois

by Tom Hanlon / Oct 18, 2023

A multidisciplinary effort involving the Department of History and the College of Education is working on a website and curricula to be used in all public schools in Illinois to educate students about the history of Native Americans in the state.

When Jacki Rand's mother, uncle, and aunt were youngsters, they were taken from their Choctaw Nation's reservation in southeastern Oklahoma and placed in three separate government boarding schools.

Between 1819 and 1969, the US ran or supported more than 400 boarding schools. By 1926, more than 80% of school-age Native American children were forcibly abducted by government agents and placed in these institutions.

"These schools taught Native American children that it was horrible to be a native, that you were worthless, and that you needed to be white," says Rand, an associate professor in the Department of History and of the Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology and the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign's first Associate Vice Chancellor for Native Affairs. "My mom didn't do well with that. My aunt and uncle did a little better. But they carried a profound sadness in their faces."

Rand carries that burden herself.

"After I do a little speaking, people will come up to me and say, 'You know, it's hard to look at your face when you speak because you look so sad.' I'm carrying the weight of this. I'm not feeling sorry for myself; I've figured everything out, but I have to assure my students that it's not their fault that they don't know this. They don't teach this in school. How could they know it?"

Native American History Legislation Passed

That lack of knowledge is being addressed. This summer, Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed several laws into effect to help students and residents of the state of Illinois recognize and honor the ancestry of Native Americans properly.

One of the laws requires all public schools in the state to allow students to celebrate their cultural, ethnic, or religious identity during graduation ceremonies. The Chicago Native American community pursued this legislation after a suburban Native American student was forced to watch his fellow classmates graduate while he sat in the bleachers because he wanted to wear an eagle feather and native beads with his cap and gown.

"The Prairie Band Potawatomi were also very involved in getting this legislation passed," Rand says. The Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation still advocates for Congress to officially recognize their land. Illinois is the only state in the Midwest, one of 15 states nationwide, without a federally recognized Native tribe.

Another law will require school districts to include Native American history curricula in their social studies classes beginning with the 2024-25 school year. The Illinois State Board of Education is working with Native American leaders to ensure school districts receive top-quality instructional materials and professional training.

That's where Rand and other colleagues—including those from the College of Education—come in.

Collaboration Includes the College of Education

Rand's team for this project consists of colleagues from the Department of History, including Robert Morrissey, Rosalyn LaPier, and Dave Beck, as well as Yoon Pak, head of the Education Policy, Organization and Leadership Department; Asif Wilson, assistant professor in the Curriculum & Instruction Department; and indigenous DRIVE (Diversity Realized by Visioning Excellence) post-doc researchers Jennifer Johnson and Oliver Tapaha from the College of Education.

The work is being funded by Humanities Without Walls, which is funded by grants from the Mellon Foundation and is based at the Humanities Research Institute on campus.

"Our role is to support what Jacki Rand's office wants to do," says Pak. "I would like to expand on what we've been doing with our TEAACH project to include a module that looks at the history of indigenous education and bring in our indigenous post-doc scholars, Jennifer Johnson and Oliver Tapaha, to really flesh that out in ways that would be most beneficial to our Illinois teachers and administrators."

TEAACH—Teaching Equitable Asian American Community History—is a 12-module professional development series sponsored by the College of Education in response to the TEAACH Act passed by the Illinois General Assembly in 2021. The Act mandates that every public K-12 school in Illinois include at least one instructional unit on Asian American history.

"Dr. Pak has already been working with people to develop a site for Asian American history," Rand says. "She has a lot to share, and she's been very generous with us. We're particularly interested in her methodologies and in working with her because she's accustomed to working with teachers in training and knows how to build credible, reliable content websites. She's done a beautiful job with the TEAACH website."

Says Pak, "We're at a point of recognizing the importance of everyone's histories in the formation of not only our state's history but our nation's history. I want to provide linkages with the expansion of the TEAACH grant and the online professional development modules that we developed. We want to build out more inclusive educational models based on the inclusive curriculum mandates that have come through."

Asif Wilson's experience in leading the development, implementation, and evaluation of training in inclusive, inquiry-based instruction for K-12 social studies teachers throughout the state of Illinois—called I3 for short—will also benefit Rand and her team as they go about their initial work of developing a website highlighting the curricula that educators across the state can use in teaching Native American history.

"We work with teachers to help them see the interconnections, much like Dr. Pak is describing with extending the Asian American learning series that we co-developed into an extended inclusive experience around the other mandates," Wilson says. "We have to see these histories as interconnected so that we can see how communities have both benefited from each other's oppression and also how communities have come together over time to the advancement of each other's well-being. That's the beauty of inclusive history."

A People Long Oppressed

Ironically, Illinois, the state now pressing to right the centuries-long wrongs perpetrated on Native Americans, derives its name from the Miami-Illinois verb irenwe×wa, which means "he speaks the regular way." The word was modified to ilinwe× (pluralized as iliniwe×k.). The current form of Illinois started appearing in the 1670s when French colonists were settling in the western part of the state.

The Indian Removal Act was signed into law in 1830 by President Andrew Jackson. Over 60,000 Native Americans were forced to move west of the Mississippi River as part of an ethnic cleansing. Almost all tribes south of the Great Lakes and east of the Mississippi were resettled, primarily in Oklahoma and Kansas.

The Erasing of Native Americans

"It's a conflicting idea that you can take the name of native people for this, that, and the other but ignore them completely," Rand says. (Literally, hundreds of Illinois counties, towns, lakes and rivers, and protected areas derive their names from Native American words.) "We can name things after them, but their history shall not be spoken! And that's because their histories are settler histories. Their histories are intertwined with the military. Their histories are intertwined with the federal government, and there was a lot of violence associated with those histories on all levels. So, people want a clean state history and a clean national narrative."

That "clean state history" has resulted in generation upon generation of Illinois students being unaware of the atrocities perpetuated on indigenous people living in the territory long before white settlers moved in.

"Indian removal was everywhere," Rand says. "In this particular case, all of these tribes have been completely erased from the state of Illinois' history, except for an occasional nod to some horrific 'Trail of Tears' kind of thing."

That removal has been both physical and historiographical.

"We've been written out of history," Rand says. "There's no understanding of our history and that it's integral to the founding of the US. You can't really talk about US history fully and completely without understanding the relationships with American Indians for good and for bad."

A survey from the National Congress of American Indians found that 87% of state history standards don't mention Native American history after 1900, while 27 states don't mention Native Americans in their K-12 curriculum.

"It's in the nation's interest to clean up its history," Rand notes. "It does us a disservice because we are also part of the nation, not by choice, but we are part of the nation, and students should understand what it took to bring this nation into existence. I frequently find that students are very curious and also very shocked they never knew about this history."

Developing a Curricula Website

Rand and her multidisciplinary team's first task is to develop a website that will house information about the various curricula that can best aid teachers in their instruction about Native American history in Illinois.

"It will be straightforward, not a lot of academic, theoretical bells and whistles," she says of the website. "We're all just helping each other come up with a really good product that will be of service to teachers, one that they can relate to and use well."

Workshops will also be developed to help teachers best utilize the curricular resources.

"Several curricular projects are being developed right now," Rand says, "including one for the Chicago Indians alone. They're working in collaboration with The Newberry." The Newberry Library is one of Chicago's most historical cultural institutions. "There are also some other tribal projects underway," she adds.

Rand says that once the website is built, her team will sift through the various curricular projects and choose the ones that they believe are credible and meet their standards as historians and as native people and list them on the website. "Our site will include Chicago but focus on the removed tribes located mainly in northeast Oklahoma," she says. "We know the content, we know the timelines. We've now grown up in an age of American Indian studies where the native voice is more consistently present, and it has changed interpretations and has brought in primary sources. And in doing so, it has complicated the timeline. We want to give people a straightforward timeline presentation."

The website will likely feature the timeline in three major periods: pre-contact (with white people), pre-removal, and post-removal.

Fighting for Truth and Sovereignty

Asked what would make her happy in 10 years; in terms of students' understanding, Rand has a ready response.

"I hope that they understand that the land they stand on, if they live here, is stolen land," she says. "That the tribes who are no longer here still feel tied to this land. That this history isn't some long-ago chapter that ended at some particular date, like with the removal, but that our tribes, our people, are still recovering. That they wouldn't have any more room for stereotypes in all their various forms. That they've benefited from Indian removal. That people got where they got not from pulling up their bootstraps, that it's not all about individualism and free choice, but that people got, through homestead acts, access to stolen land. That the land grant institution that is always lauded means that the land that was granted is native land. That the University of Illinois is built on stolen land. That the universities have never compensated native people for this theft in any way. That we have a history of very, very few native people on this campus, both students and faculty. And speaking of theft, all of these master pharmaceutical books are filled with native-derived medicines. That kind of knowledge goes unseen and unremarked on. People have never seen a dime from any of this. So, intellectual property theft has been a big component of colonialism. I would like some understanding of that.

"Finally, I would be happy if people would just recognize that we're here, that we have been here throughout, that we have survived a genocidal movement. We're not asking for much. We're looking for support of tribal sovereignty is the big one. We always have to fight for that."

Tribal sovereignty, she says, is an issue that people have long struggled with. "What does indigenous sovereignty mean?" Rand says. "People don't understand that. What does self-determination mean? What is the history of land expropriation? Let's call it what it is. How did that happen? Tribal sovereignty pre-contact looks different from tribal sovereignty in the middle of the chaos and tribal sovereignty after removal. People talk about it as if it's an historic concept. No. We need a clear, firm notion that our tribes are sovereign. It's not only in our own heads as an opinion. It's a matter of the US constitution. It's a matter of treaties. It's a matter of laws."

Hope for the Future

Rand, like scores of indigenous people, is a survivor. And a fighter. She fought through roadblocks that were both high and wide to earn a Ph.D. in 1998 and to, as mentioned, become the first Associate Vice Chancellor for Native Affairs at the University of Illinois in 2021. Those roadblocks were set in place long before she was born, spawned from colonialism and racism. She has suffered much and seen much suffering as a direct result of those twin evil ideologies.

That she keeps going is a testament to her will, perseverance, and patience. She speaks of all these atrocities in an even-keeled, level-headed way. She is calm and unperturbed, philosophical and wise. You get the sense that nothing can ruffle her anymore because she has seen and been through so much.

Perhaps in the end, she still identifies with that younger self that idealized and simplified the concept of rectifying the misunderstandings surrounding her people's history. She could teach the real history. She could set the story straight. Then people would understand.

Well, as the saying goes, the wheels of justice turn slowly but grind exceedingly fine. But Rand is doing her part to help those wheels keep churning.

"If the people I teach were taught some of this in lower grades, just think what kind of classes I could organize," she says. "They'd have some basic knowledge about American Indians. I'm always at ground zero.

"It's gotten better, though. People have a lot more awareness. They know something bad happened. But they don't have any hard knowledge yet."

With this legislation that requires public schools in Illinois to teach Native American history in social studies classes, the foundation has been laid for that hard knowledge to be gained.