this Dec. 14, 2015 photo, Nakesha Edwards, a La Conner High
School junior shows some of her Native American-inspired carvings
in La Conner High Schools the cultural collaboration between
the district and the Swinomish Tribe tribe is a way of life
in La Conner, Wash. (Scott Terrell/Skagit Valley Herald)
MOUNT VERNON, WASH. Though a channel divides the town
of La Conner from the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community reservation,
the two cultures are intertwined in Michael Carrigan's shop class
at La Conner High School.
His file cabinets are full of traditional Native American imagery
pictures of salmon, orcas and ravens. In a heartbeat, Carrigan
can pull out examples of student-made tools and drums.
For their final projects, students carve totem poles that tell
their own stories.
"It's good for keeping some of the skills alive," Carrigan said.
"It generates an awareness, which creates a respect for other cultures."
In La Conner schools, the cultural collaboration between the
district and the tribe is a way of life.
"The Swinomish tribe and La Conner schools have worked together
for a very long time," said Peg Seeling, who is the district's director
of teaching and learning, as well as its director of assessment.
"It's amazing how much history they have together."
Thanks to a newly modified state law, school districts throughout
the state are now figuring out how to be more like La Conner.
Passed during the 2015 legislative session, the law requires
schools to incorporate a state-created curriculum, called Since
Time Immemorial, to enhance what students learn about Washington's
29 federally-recognized tribes.
In Carrigan's classroom, junior Nakesha Edwards is focused on
a piece of cedar, carving it into what will soon become a bird.
"It relaxes me," the 16-year-old said of woodworking.
this photo taken Dec. 9, 2015, Swinomish Tribal senator and
instructor Kevin Paul helps Nakesha Edwards, a La Conner High
School junior, with her wood carving project during class
in La Conner, Wash. Cultural collaboration between the tribe
and the school district have been a way of life. (Scott Terrell/Skagit
Carving is a skill Edwards is refining in the classroom, but
it's an art she learned from her uncle, Swinomish Senator Kevin
Paul, who has co-taught classes with Carrigan for more than a decade.
"I want to share the gift of the knowledge that was handed down
to me," Paul said.
Before coming to La Conner, Edwards said lessons about her culture
weren't something she was taught.
"People should learn about our ways," Edwards said. "But they
should learn about different ways as well. Come in with an open
The curriculum is intended to create more opportunities for
all kids throughout the state to learn about Native American history
and how it has helped shape Washington.
"The intention of the curriculum is to benefit all kids in public
education," said Michael Vendiola, program supervisor for the Office
of Superintendent of Public Instruction's (OSPI) Office Of Native
Education. "This is not about focusing only on one particular student
group. It's filling in some of the missing information about the
tribal community to the Washington state story."
Vendiola has personal experience with some of that missing information.
A member of the Swinomish tribe, Vendiola said he's always had
a strong connection to his culture through his tribe. He didn't
attend La Conner schools, and the schools he attended didn't teach
his culture at the same level as his tribe.
"It was a minimum," he said. "And it was presented in a past
tense, as if myself, as a person who identified as a Native American,
didn't really exist in the current society. It was about looking
at the past and more of like an anthropological look at how our
people lived a long time ago."
That perspective does a disservice to all students, Vendiola
"It leaves a tremendous hole in the story of what makes us Washington
state," he said. "That's what we feel is really important about
implementing this curriculum is that it tells a broader story."
The Since Time Immemorial curriculum addresses sovereignty,
treaties and court rulings. They are topics tribes and neighboring
communities deal with every day.
"The typical U.S. history book does not adequately or appropriately
cover Native American culture," Seeling said. "One-third of our
kids are Native. We want to do it right."
"Having this curriculum in place, (students) will have a different
view of what an Indian is and where they come from," he said. "According
to the old textbook, we still live in tepees. We're still 'wild'
The move toward a more complete Native American curriculum at
the state level began in 2005, Vendiola said. At that time, the
Legislature passed a law saying the districts' implementation of
the Since Time Immemorial curriculum was "encouraged."
Only two districts, Marysville and Fife, officially adopted
the curriculum at that time, he said.
In its 2015 session, the Legislature made implementation of
the curriculum mandatory.
"This shift to requiring it, I think recent history proves how
necessary that is," said K.C. Knudson, executive director of teaching
and learning for the Burlington-Edison School District. "I don't
think we were doing our best prior to legislation change."
The curriculum is free to school districts and available online.
The districts are encouraged to adapt it to best fit their schools,
"I would say folks are adopting it in innovative ways," he said.
OSPI also offers free training sessions.
The curriculum is meant to enhance lessons already taught in
fourth-, seventh- and 11th-grade social studies classes, but can
be expanded to fit all grades.
Districts are also encouraged to adapt the curriculum to their
local tribes, an idea Knudson said is important for deeper understanding.
"Some of the most egregious errors that I think we made were
not valuing our local tribes as resources," he said. "Here we are
with kids in our classrooms that are living, breathing resources,
with family members at home that are also living, breathing resources."
The Burlington-Edison School District hopes to include the Upper
Skagit Indian Tribe and the Swinomish tribe in further development
of the curriculum, Knudson said.
"Our kids, unlike La Conner, have less direct exposure (to tribal
culture)," he said. "I feel like that almost makes the work more
pressing here, so that we understand our neighbors and the richness
of the whole Skagit Valley."
Sedro-Woolley School District Assistant Superintendent Mike
Olson said his district will look to the Upper Skagit tribe to guide
its implementation as well.
"There are a number of tribes in Washington state, and it's
inappropriate to overgeneralize that every tribe is the same," he
The Upper Skagit tribe could not be reached for comment.
All 29 federally-recognized tribes in the state have endorsed
the state-created curriculum, Vendiola said.
"This is a collaboration between the state and the tribes,"
he said. "Both financially support these free trainings. The tribes
continue to support this effort to build stronger relationships."
With the passage of the law, the La Conner district will expand
on what it already does and incorporate Swinomish culture into more
lessons, Seeling said.
"We're not just doing it because it's the law," she said. "We're
doing it because it's an important part of our school culture."
With participation from the Swinomish tribe, the district is
looking at incorporating the curriculum across all grades and subjects,
especially when it comes to science and environmental studies, Seeling
The Swinomish tribe has formed a committee to work with the
district to implement the best practices for teaching not just the
Native American story, but the Swinomish story, said Tracy James,
education director for the tribe.
"It would give us the ability to teach our children directly
what our Swinomish tribe is about," James said. "From our constitution,
to our culture, to our history."
While the district will focus on K-12 implementation, the tribe
will go further, beginning with teaching Swinomish preschoolers
the tribe's Lushootseed language and working with Northwest Indian
College to further train teachers in the language.
"Children who know about their culture and history do better
in school," James said. "If we can give them a sense of place and
a sense of history, research shows that native kids will do better."