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
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.