Speaking Lushootseed: WA’s Indigenous curriculum may be renamed

A bill would name the Native history program after the late advocate, longtime state Sen. John McCoy (lulilaš), who inspired its creation.

A teacher holds laminated cards up in front of a group of 3rd graders sitting on the ground

Third grade teacher Chelsea Brassfield reads to her class from cards about traditional storytelling and Native First Peoples, part of the Since Time Immemorial: Tribal Sovereignty in Washington State curriculum, Jan. 24, 2024, at Parkside Elementary. House Bill 1879 would honor the late Sen. John McCoy, D-Tulalip, by adding his traditional name, lulilaš (pronounced loot-lee-o-ash), to the name of the curriculum. (Genna Martin/Crosscut)

Children sit cross-legged on the carpeted floor facing the front of their Des Moines classroom as teacher Chelsea Brassfield holds up laminated cards and reads them out loud.

Photos of animals, Indigenous drawings and settlers’ first contact with Indigenous people hold the children’s attention.

“Traditional stories teach us the history of the first people,” said Brassfield; the Parkside Elementary third grade class repeats it back to her. 

Around the classroom are colorful signs, books and posters in a variety of languages – Pashto, Arabic, Spanish and Japanese. A yellow sign hangs in the back above the children’s coats featuring a Lushootseed word in red, ləx̌ilcut, with the English translation underneath, “Be full of light.”

Brassfield is using the Since Time Immemorial: Tribal Sovereignty in Washington State curriculum for the first time this school year, combining it with her literature unit on traditional tales.

The mandated curriculum –  about the histories, cultures, governments and tribal sovereignty of federally recognized nations in Washington – is part of K-12 state history and government.

Lesli Meekins’ fifth grade class listens during a lesson on European colonization of the Americas at Parkside Elementary, Jan. 24, 2024. (Genna Martin/Crosscut)

“If I can integrate Native history and Native storytelling into other parts of my day, students start to see more connections,” Brassfield said. Teaching a class where the children know so many different languages in their own families is one reason she posted the Lushootseed word at the beginning of the year.

Her classroom is full of students who recently immigrated to the United States and are curious to learn about the land’s original inhabitants. Filling out a worksheet, one student wrote he learned that since Indigenous people historically didn’t use newspapers or books to tell stories, they would tell each other stories by talking and through memory.

Brassfield said her next lesson will include a map of Washington and its Indigenous nations, so students can see where Native peoples are living now. Then she will localize the curriculum to Des Moines and its Indigenous neighbors.

“This is so they can make it feel a little more real to them, like, this is the story and this is what it teaches us and how we might see it today,” Brassfield said. 

Left: A Lushootseed word, “ləx̌ilcut,” with the English translation underneath, “Be full of light,” is framed in Chelsea Brassfield’s third grade classroom at Parkside Elementary. Right: A student glues a map titled “European Colonization of North America c. 1750” into her notebook during a fifth grade class. (Genna Martin/Crosscut)

Honoring Sen. McCoy

Highline School District, which includes Parkside Elementary, recently requested Since Time Immemorial curriculum training, said Henri Strom, executive director of the Office of Native Education at the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction. Teachers, district leaders, the superintendent and central office leaders participated.

The state Legislature is currently considering House Bill 1879 to honor the late Sen. John McCoy, D-Tulalip, who was the main advocate of this educational approach, by adding his traditional name, lulilaš (pronounced loot-lee-o-ash), to the name of the curriculum.

The Legislature adopted the program in 2015 through a bill sponsored by McCoy, who also championed legislation for the environment, Indigenous rights, health and especially expanding K-12 education about the state’s Indigenous nations.

McCoy, a member of the Tulalip Tribe, represented the 38th Legislative District, which includes Everett, Marysville and Tulalip, for 17 years – 2003 through 2020 – as one of the longest-serving Native American legislators in state history. McCoy died in 2023 at 79.

Rep. Deborah Lekanoff, D-Bow, HB 1879’s primary sponsor, credits McCoy with shaping the relationship between Washington nations and the state government. At one point, Lekanoff and McCoy were the only Native American legislators in Olympia.

Third graders fill out a worksheet from the Since Time Immemorial: Tribal Sovereignty in Washington State curriculum at Parkside Elementary, Jan. 24, 2024. (Genna Martin/Crosscut)

“These governments weren’t built for John and I, 150 years ago,” Lekanoff said. “John taught me you can look to the past and understand it, but you have to look to the future. Looking to the future means bringing all governments together.”

Although the curriculum was mandated in 2015 to be taught in all K-12 schools, it was not fully implemented in each district due to inadequate state funding and the financial burden it has placed on nations and individual school districts.

Collaborating with Indigenous neighbors

School districts and nearby nations are meant to collaborate to tailor a local curriculum for students to learn more about their neighbors. The core curriculum is available online. School districts and local nations work together to build on this, and their plans may include field trips to museums, tribal lands and sacred or historic sites.

The chairwoman on the Tulalip Tribe board of directors said McCoy’s push for education about the state’s Native nations has helped break down barriers and build bridges with school districts, since history about Indigenous people hasn’t always included their perspectives or input.

Teri Gobin supports the proposal to add McCoy’s Lushootseed name to the curriculum project. She said it would show respect, since many people are unaware of Indigenous history.

“We were taught how to be good people and to treat our neighbors in a good way, and it’s life lessons for the young ones,” Gobin said.

Third grade teacher Chelsea Brassfield displays a poster with questions about First Peoples from the Since Time Immemorial: Tribal Sovereignty in Washington State curriculum, Jan. 24, 2024, at Parkside Elementary. (Genna Martin/Crosscut)

Barbara Lawrence, a Suquamish elder, catalogs the challenges of these cooperative educational efforts.

“When we put out a curriculum, we want it to be something that we’re completely proud of. It’s not just about the past, it’s about us today too,” Lawrence said. “We want the students and teachers to learn that we’re complete governments with working departments and agencies inside our reservations that serve all of our people in all manners, and that’s something that’s very surprising to visitors.”

And likely to students as well.

Lawrence works as an education outreach specialist for the Since Time Immemorial curriculum being developed with the Bainbridge School District. She agrees that the lack of state funding makes things challenging, but that building strong relationships between school districts and tribes is still important to have a meaningful impact on students and teachers.

She said the Suquamish Tribe has a really strong relationship with the Bainbridge School District from before the curriculum project. The District consulted the Tribe when they wanted to rename Wilkes Elementary School x̌alilc (pronounced ha-leets) Elementary School, working through a list of at least 100 names for about a year before narrowing it down to one.

Lawrence said the District reached out to the Tribe since Bainbridge Island is the Suquamish’s traditional territory: “It’s very important that all people learn about Indigenous people because every single school is on somebody’s original territory,” Lawrence said.

Lawrence agreed that adding McCoy’s traditional name to the curriculum would honor his efforts to educate all students in Washington.

A bin of books about Native peoples in a third grade classroom at Parkside Elementary. (Genna Martin/Crosscut)

“The thing is, it's one thing to educate tribal students, it’s a whole other thing to educate all the non-Indians around us,” Lawrence said. “We can uplift our own people, but to fully educate the non-Indians around us and to our importance in history, culture, treaties and the validity of our existence and how complex and real we are in today’s economy and reality, that’s very important.” 

Developing the curriculum

Kristen B. French is a professor of elementary education at Western Washington University who has been teaching a tribal-sovereignty course to future educators since before the new state law, and has worked with University of Washington faculty to develop their curriculum for future teachers.

Over the years, students called this curriculum transformative because they hadn’t learned the material in their own schooling.

French is a registered member of the Blackfeet tribe in Montana and a descendant of Gros Ventre in Montana and Eastern Band Cherokee in North Carolina. She works with other Indigenous professors in Washington to teach the course, which includes an exploration of issues like climate change and salmon restoration that are important to local Indigenous nations.

“Being in community together is also showing our students that this work has to be done in community with each other and we’re modeling working with tribal partners,” French said.

Tleena Ives, director of tribal relations at the Washington State Department of Children, Youth and Families, said McCoy created her position through his advocacy.

“Naming and renaming things, that’s important in tribal history and is another form of decolonization because it gives Sen. McCoy the recognition and the honor for his leadership in doing this,” Ives said.

Ives, a member of the Port Gamble S’Klallam Tribe, said although the early learning curriculum is not mandated as K-12 is, she is hoping to expand it to reach younger students and make it more accessible to everyone. She hopes this year’s bill will solidify the Legislature’s commitment to re-energize its implementation across the state.

Strom, of the Office of Native Education, said the Office can keep track only of which school districts reach out to them for their training, but don’t have the capacity to track which schools implement the curriculum or don’t. There are nearly 300 school districts in the state and over 2,000 public schools.

A graduating high school senior who is Mississippi Choctaw told Strom that he had never heard of the tribal sovereignty curriculum.

“He said we are relegated to the past,” Strom said. “This is a 17-, 18-year-old boy and that’s his perspective on how he is seen in the school system,” Strom said.

Strom said he thinks that school districts without a high percentage of Native students may be less inclined to embrace implementation of the tribal history curriculum, but believes this should not be the case.

“The curriculum is not designed solely for Native people, it’s for all, to help people understand the history of Native people and the current state of sovereignty,” Strom said.

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