Sounding Decolonial Futures: Decentering Ethnomusicology's Colonialist Legacies

Steps to Revise a Lesson Plan

Indigenous lives and histories are often overlooked in EuroAmerican curriculums denying the coeval existence of Indigenous Tribes and Nations. Denial of coeval existence refers to the refusal to acknowledge ​​Indigenous groups as existing at the same time as a “modern,” settler society. This is done through setting Indigenous groups as “others” who belong to the past within a linear idea of evolution.

My school district included a curriculum meant to teach children K-12 about the Potawatomi tribe and wigwams. This curriculum included several signs of colonial settler impact and ideologies that perpetuated multiple acts of epistemic violence on Indigenous nations. Epistemic violence can be found through the erasure of certain Potawatomi traditions while concentrating on other Potawatomi traditions. 

There was only one lesson plan that focused on Indigenous histories, though it excluded Indigenous voices and perspectives. The only teacher encouraged to teach the plan was my mom who was an environmental science teacher. She taught in a classroom on a forest preserve a bus-ride away from the main campus. She followed a lesson plan initially proposed by the Illinois State Museum that was free use by the public. The lesson plan has since been taken down from the official Museum website but is still available on other smaller educational websites. The plan also lacks information about the author or credentials.

The following questions and answers were the center point of Indigenous curriculum:

In a conversation with my mom, I got a closer look at how the lesson plan was handled in the classroom. These bullet points include a mix of information taken from the Illinois Museum Website as well as speculations presented as facts. Following the plan, the students would collect twigs, bark from dead trees and grass from the preserve that would be used to create a wigwam diorama on a three by one foot platform of styrofoam. Students would also be tasked to add shrubbery and materials to the platform to create a “woodland environment.” In some cases, my mom would supply projects with Native American action figures to make the dioramas more “realistic.” 

The specific tribe focused on by the classroom constantly changes throughout the lesson plan. The beginning of the slide show refers to the focused history simply as woodland tribe history, then Illinois and then Potawatami decentralizing Indigenous tribes and melding several nations together.

The main issue with the lesson plan is that it was not conceived with, by or for Indigenous peoples. There was a significant lack of land acknowledgment as well as a lack of understanding of which tribe exactly was being centered. More than any voice, my mom’s voice was being centered, as she didn’t collaborate with, by or for Indigenous groups. The factual nature of the plan is brought into question, when a lack of credibility is encouraged by a lack of citation practice or author within the plan. 

In their journal, “Asking the Indigeneity Question of American Studies,” Ethnomusicology scholars Dr. Bisset Perea, of the Knick Tribe, and Dr. Gabriel Solis highlighted four of thirteen total criteria in Elements of Indigenous Style Dr. Gregory Youngings, a member of the Opaskwayak Cree Nation, meant to center indigenous voices to encourage any curriculum about indigenous peoples to be done with, by or for those peoples. The highlighted criteria and ideas were these: you must reflect realities as perceived by Indigenous peoples, when Indigenous style and conventional (EuroAmerican) style disagree, Indigenous style prevails, Indigenous style recognizes how Indigenous people view themselves, and Indigenous studies is its own canon and not a subgroup of other common western topics. 

In relation to the criteria above, the original lesson plan taught in my school district was not brought into context, which might look like this: “I am a non-indigenous white settler teaching on stolen land of the Potowatomi. The lessons I am going to teach you are not mine, but are authored by (a scholar who works with, by or for Indigenous peoples).” Furthermore, Indigenous realities were not emphasized, as there was a lack of land acknowledgement or centering of a specific Indigenous tribe. The lesson plan was executed through collaboration of a non-indigenous and an anonymous incredible perspective, lacking inclusion of Indigenous perspective or style in students’ learning. The setting of the lesson plan, not in a traditional western classroom, denied the coexistence of Indigenous peoples to EuroAmericans and treated the topic as a subgroup or “special project” in curricula. Kids would take this “field-trip” to a forest preserve about three times a school year to receive curriculum about Indigenous peoples. The topic was treated as outside of western society, unfit to be taught in regular American classrooms. In other words, the setting of a forest preserve fed the phenomenon of “othering” peoples who were not white.

The pitfalls of this lesson plan highlight necessary changes in the K-12 Curriculum to center Indigenous voices and perspectives. Student epistemologies, or ways of viewing the world, should coincide with the topic you are learning about. Thus, a holistic epistemology that focuses on every system that exists (spiritual, physical, body, mind, environment) should be used when learning about Indigenous peoples (Kovach). In order to teach a necessary curriculum, outdated lesson plans must be put into context and then reformed to fit Dr. Younging’s learning criteria and thus be completed in collaboration with, by or for Indigenous peoples.

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