Initiative aims to integrate tribal stories into lessons

SEATTLE — Two dozen Northwest Indian tribes are working with the University of Washington, Bothell, to create tribal-centered academic lessons for high school students.


The Tribal Education Network initiative will work to integrate tribal stories and values in a program that aims to get more Native American students to college, and to help them earn college credentials while in high school.

“We long for people who are traditionally oriented because of their upbringing, yet who are excellent as scholars,” said Jim Thomas, chairman of a committee for the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians and a member of the Tlingit Tribe of Southeastern Alaska.

The project is still very much in the early stages. The goal is to create a pilot project with 60 or 80 students next year in several tribal communities.

It was inspired by the UW’s annual tribal summit, said Deanna Kennedy, an assistant professor in the UW-Bothell’s School of Business and a member of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma. It grew out of discussions between academics and tribal leaders about ways to forge a closer bond between the state’s academic institutions and the tribes.

Lynn Palmanteer-Holder, a tribal leader and representative of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, said one area of emphasis will likely be business and economic-development courses — an area of interest to many tribes.

“We need to generate revenue, and invest back into our communities,” she said.

She said many groups often talk about partnering with the tribes, but “we want something concrete.”

“This group at Bothell really understood that,” she said. “I’m pretty excited about it.”

Native American students make up a small percentage of the college enrollment in Washington.

In fall 2010, about 5,300 Native American students were enrolled in Washington colleges, and made up less than 2 percent of all enrollments in public and private schools and community colleges, according to the Washington Student Achievement Council.

About 47 percent of Native Americans who graduated from high school enrolled in college within a year of graduation in 2009 — the smallest percentage of any demographic group, according to the council.

Thomas said it makes sense for the tribes to connect with the smaller branch campus of the UW because, while it shares the UW’s prestige, it’s a smaller setting and thus a better fit for Indian students who grow up in small tribal communities and can be overwhelmed by a large campus.

Leaders of the initiative envision incorporating tribal values by teaching academic subjects using real-life scenarios developed by experts from the tribes and the UW-Bothell.

The scenarios, called cases, will be assembled into casebooks. Completing a casebook in high school may lead to a college certificate, and the certificates, in turn, will lead toward completing a college-level course and, ultimately, a degree, Kennedy said.

Students would have both tribal mentors and UW faculty mentors.

Kennedy said the initiative will involve hands-on projects and multimedia components and that tribal stories will be central to many of the courses.

UW-Bothell associate professor William Erdly, who has worked with the Tulalip Tribes for a decade as project director for Tulalip Data Services, thinks the multimedia component could be a key to the project’s success.

Erdly said Native American narratives could be converted into multimedia lessons, and the lessons could include a series of recorded interviews with tribal leaders.

Some of the lessons could help teach tribal history and tribal languages.

“There may even be some cultural stories and concepts related to management theory,” Erdly said.

“The nice thing is, nothing is set in stone,” Thomas said. “We’re all sharing ideas.”

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