Indigenous stories and common core standards: there’s exposition in those narratives

That tribes have been able to maintain their discrete identities as national groups can be attributed to their steadfast adherence to their mission as a distinct people, as revealed to them in creation or upon one of their migrations… Tribes are, therefore, ultimately guided by internal prophetic instructions rather than external political and economic events, and the success or failure of the tribe in dealing with unexpected problems can be traced to this concern with fulfilling their cosmic responsibilities

                                                            — Vine Deloria, Jr.

Tribal creation and migration stories pervade the Lessons of Our California Land (LOCL) land tenure curriculum in all grades, K-12, because the stories provide keys to understanding of American Indian views of land in the past and the present. Stories engage, inspire, and motivate listeners and readers in ways that technical instructions or scientific explanation cannot. An American Indian origin story is not only a sacred text that expresses beliefs about Creator and the Creation, it is also a guiding text in the sense that the founding documents of the United States such as the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution are guiding texts. Origin stories show people how to put values and principles into action.

Much more than simple fables or fairy tales, California Native American stories often use uncomplicated sentence structures to build complex narratives that are often intentionally left open, stories that allude to other stories in a tribe’s repertoire and that reward repeated readings and tellings.

The complexity of Native American narratives may make them ideal resources for English and history teachers who want to help students meet the Common Core State Standards. The State of California adopted the Common Core – developed by a consortium of states to provide consistent educational goals across state lines – in 2010, but educators in the state are just now beginning to grapple with ways to implement the new standards in classrooms.

According to my friend Marsha Ingrao, who is the History-Social Science Instructional Consultant for the Tulare County Office of Education and one of the directors of the California Council for the Social Studies, the Common Core State Standards will “open the door for integration of academic content at an all new level of rigor.”

Marsha notes that the Common Core State Standards call for several shifts from the traditional state standards, shifts that will “bridge the gap” between English-language arts and history-social science in K-12 schools. Resulting instructional changes will include an increase in reading complex, non-fiction text and primary historical sources, and an increased focus on text-based questions.

As Marsha writes:

The key to teaching history is using questions to investigate the past. Integrating ELA and history-social science can be as easy as altering the kinds of questions teachers ask their students.

In professional development workshops, Marsha asks teachers to formulate open-ended, complex questions for students about their reading selections, rather than, as Marsha puts it, “the relatively simple recall questions that are typically found in their ELA textbooks.” In guiding these more complex inquiries, teachers may well learn a great deal about the texts from their student’s observations and interpretations of them.

The historical and social inquiries that make up an integral part of the LOCL curriculum could make the lessons prime components in a teacher’s toolkit of approaches to the Common Core State Standards. By encouraging teachers and students to pay attention to how Native American stories characterize relationships among places, plants, and animals (see the discussion guides here and here) LOCL guides them to insights into American Indian lands, national identities, and purposes.

The Common Core State Standards emphasize reading and writing expository text in addition to narrative.  By approaching Native American narratives in a respectful spirit of inquiry, teachers will find rich and deep exposition, explanation, and description within them.




5 thoughts on “Indigenous stories and common core standards: there’s exposition in those narratives

  1. Great post! That is exactly true! LOCL provides great opportunity for inquiry that fully integrates common core history and sciences as well! It would be interesting for the 3rd – 5th grade history standards that touch on native Americans to be addressed from a Native American perspective. And engage in an empathic narrative and exploratory experience. Such empathic and overarching learning experience at most grade levels can be applied to Social Studies standards and help students more deeply understand World History, the Holocaust and Colonialism. Empathy can drive some pretty great prose and thus ELA skills and outcomes.

    • Thanks, Lisa. I heartily agree. Teachers using an approach of “understanding by design” could put the goal of learning from Native American narrative at the top of their planning sheets, allowing their students to meet many academic content standards in ELA, HSS, science, and the arts.

  2. Nice article. There is also a connection to the California 3 Rs Project (Rights, Responsibility, and Respect). The complexity factor in these stories is not in the sentence structure, but the lack of background knowledge of the reader, and the metaphorical nature of the writing. Keep up the good work.

    • Thank you, Marsha. I appreciate your response very much (and I also appreciate the writing of yours that I’ve quoted here!). I have found the important work of the 3Rs Project to be quite helpful as I have written the guides for teaching about creation stories at Regarding the complexity of the stories, yes, the sentence structures are generally uncomplicated, but I think that it’s because they are so simple that they build elegant narratives and exposition. The stories evoke multiple highly sophisticated, logical interconnections at scales broader than the sentence — interconnections established not only through metaphors and other tropes, but also through parallelism, parataxis, and other narrative schemes. I believe the best way to increase student (and adult) understanding of the stories is to continuously build background knowledge (preferably through collaboration with local tribes) and to read or listen to the stories repeatedly, paying careful attention to their rhythms and rhetorical devices — in a sense, “observing” or “examining” them as carefully as one might observe a historical photograph.

  3. Great questions. I’ve been reading Telling Stories in the Face of Danger: Language Renewal in Native American Communities ( A couple of the book’s chapters bear on your point. In one chapter, Sean O’Neill writes about how tribes “maintain narrative distinction” in northwestern California, emphasizing local differences in stories to reinforce distinct tribal identities in the region. In another chapter, Margaret C. Field explores variations in Kumiai storytelling as indications of “localist stance” that not only reflects social boundaries and group identity but also “‘environmental rights and opportunities,’ or access to resources.” I think Field’s point is not that the environment determines or causes differences in stories but that the stories comprise claims to land, that they express land tenure.

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