NORMAN — American Indian culture should be taught on a regular basis in Oklahoma classrooms, state schools Superintendent Janet Barresi told a group of tribal educators and officials.
Speaking Monday during a symposium on American Indian education organized by the University of Oklahoma's Native American Studies Program, Barresi said she plans to expand the duties of the director of Native American education at the state Department of Education and wants tribal input on who should be hired to fill that position.
“We will be looking for ways that we can develop strategies in this state to effectively education Native American children, no matter where they are in their schools,” Barresi said. “We want to work with councils, with each of you, to look at ways that we can infuse the rich culture of our Native American heritage within curriculum, across curricula, and ways we can infuse that within what is taught within our classrooms.
“Oklahoma has a proud culture, and I want the rest of the nation and the world to understand that. How better to show that than when Oklahoma's children begin to appreciate and understand that.”
She later told The Associated Press she wants Oklahoma tribes to offer suggestions on how to teach Indian culture in the classroom. She said Indian culture could be incorporated in subjects including reading, social studies and science “in all grades.”
“It is a part of what we are,” she said. “Just as it's important to teach U.S. history within our schools and have students understand our current form of government … it's also important for Oklahoma kids to understand the culture that made Oklahoma what it is, made it great.”
Barresi's comments seemed to resonate with most who attended the conference, which focused on issues including tribal government involvement in public education and policy issues affecting the education of American Indians.
Jerry Bread, the outreach coordinator for OU's Native American Studies Program, said conference organizers didn't ask Barresi to speak directly about Indian education but that “it's about time” the state recognized the importance of doing so.
Quinton Roman Nose, of Watonga, a member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes and the president-elect of the National Indian Education Association, said only a few other states have taken significant steps to incorporate tribal culture into the classroom.
“There's a lot of misunderstanding between the tribes and the state,” Roman Nose said, describing the relationship as “adversarial. If they … would teach the concept of tribal sovereignty in public schools, just think how much further along that relationship would be.”
Jacob Tsotigh, the technical assistance coordinator with the Mid-Continent Comprehensive Center at OU, said tribal educators feared the Indian education position “would be eliminated or absorbed in another area, so I'm encouraged she wants to maintain it, to add to it, and then to add depth is something we haven't had.”
More than three dozen federally recognized tribes have their headquarters in Oklahoma. More than 320,000 people in Oklahoma — 8.5 percent of the state's population — identified themselves solely as Indians on the 2010 U.S. Census. When mixed-race people are included, more than 12 percent of Oklahomans claim Indian ancestry.
It's important for tribal officials to engage educational and political leaders if there is to be progress in educating Indian students, said Mary Jean Oatman-Wak Wak, director of Indian education for the Idaho Department of Education and the current president of the NIEA.