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Illinois students will be required to learn about Native American history

 Native American students dance at a summer camp in Chicago.
Peter Medlin
Native American students dance at a summer camp in Chicago.

“You want to do it like this,” says Aaliyah Begay, teaching traditional dance techniques to a group of about a dozen fellow Native American students.

She’s in the basement of a Chicago church for a summer program from the American Indian Association of Illinois. Most of the students are in high school. They’re all from Chicago. Some jump right in and dance, while a few others stand on the sideline before their friends’ laughter and the music coaxes them in.

Begay’s going into her third year at Columbia College Chicago, studying marketing. She’s Navajo & Santo Domingo Pueblo. She travels almost every weekend to dance at Pow Wows across the country.

Today, she’s not just teaching dance and showing her jingle dresses -- she’s also talking with the students about her college experience so far.

“There's not that many of us," said Begay, "and there's a lot of stereotypes of Native Americans not making it in life or being high school dropouts and you guys want to break that."

Starting in the 2024-25 school year, all Illinois K-12 students will be required to learn about Native American history, tribal sovereignty, genocide and much more. Begay’s glad Illinois just passed the new Native American history bill. But she wants non-native students to know that their story hasn’t ended.

“We should be teaching everyone," she said, "that we're still here and that we're not just in the past. We're still out here and we're still thriving."

That is a key part of the legislation which is still waiting for Governor Pritzker’s signature. Students will learn about the history of indigenous people in Illinois, but also Native contributions to the arts, sciences and more. It’ll describe the large urban native American populations in Illinois.

The state has no federally-recognized tribal land. But over 70%of Native Americans nationwide live in urban areas, not reservations. Chicago has one of the largest urban American Indian populations in the country, with around 175 tribes represented.

 Native dancer finishes performance inside the Illinois Capitol Building at the 2022 Native American Summit
Chicago American Indian Community Collaborative
Native dancer finishes performance inside the Illinois Capitol Building at the 2022 Native American Summit

Older students will delve furtherinto tribal sovereignty, the genocide and discrimination of Native Americans and forced relocation. The instructional materials for these lessons will be developed in consultation with the Chicago American Indian Community Collaborative – a group of independent Native organizations that the American Indian Association of Illinois is part of.

Dorene Wiese is an enrolled member of the White Earth Ojibwe nation in Minnesota and president of the American Indian Association of Illinois. Wiese has been an educator in Illinois for over 50 years and was the president of the Native American Educational Service — the first urban American Indian college of its kind with an all-Native faculty.

She thinks the last time the state board of education developed any Native American history curriculum, it was written by her, 40 years ago as an undergrad.

“It was about Native people and plants and animals in Illinois,” she laughs and pulls out the old, yellow booklet, still with the state board seal in the corner.

This time around, Wiese and others met weekly with the state board’s curriculum committee. The curriculum is still a work in progress. She says they were able to borrow some from the curriculum in Wisconsin, but they largely started from scratch.

She says Native American representation has been rare within Illinois education. She knows of two American Indian teachers who have taught in Chicago Public Schools in the past half century. She says there are still very few Native American students attending college in Illinois.

“I have homeless people; I still have kids dropping out of school. I can't talk the parents into borrowing a bunch of money to send their kids to college,” said Wiese. “Believe me, I'm working the summer on it, to try to convince them it's worth it.”

Andrew Johnson is a citizen of the Cherokee Nation and the Executive Director of the Native American Chamber of Commerce of Illinois. He’s also part of the community collaborative. He helped lead the legislative push for the history bill.

He says the plan will also finally give Native Americans a seat on the State Board of Education’s equity committee.

Johnson's been proud of his work with the state board and Rockford State Rep. Maurice West, who was the main sponsor of the bill. But his experience in Springfield wasn’t totally positive.

“One of the representatives -- I'm still troubled by it -- he goes, ‘Well, this education, it's going to include how natives were involved in ritual sacrifice of children.’ I [was] just floored,” said Johnson.

But there were some unforgettable uplifting moments too. Late last year, Native American drums and dancing could be heard in the Capitol building rotunda during the Native American Summit. Johnson was there gathering support for issues like the Native American history bill -- along with several other Native-related legislation like one focused on Native remains receiving proper burialin Illinois.

“We were able to have our drums and sing and our dancers there. And it was an unbelievably emotional moment for all of us. It was overwhelming. There were tears,” he said. “It definitely made our legislators know that there were natives here in that building. And ones that are a vibrant community that contribute a tremendous amount to the state.”

He said hearing those drums in the halls of power meant a lot to a group that’s had so little representation since being forced off this land -- a state that’s named after a confederation of tribes. And they hope this new curriculum will help students from every background understand Illinois’ true history.

Peter is the Education Reporter at WNIJ. He is a graduate of North Central College and a native of Sandwich, Illinois.