Ask children for their views of native-American culture, and they're likely to bring up dusty battles and bows and arrows. But mention that native-American culture thrives today, and many kids stare in amazement.
The Cradleboard Teaching Project is out to change that.
The project - whose name harks from the traditional frame used by North American Indians to carry their children - began a two-year pilot project this year including five Indian and five non-Indian schools in the United States. The aim is to improve self-identity and self-esteem in both Indian and non-Indian children, and to increase contact between the two.
The curriculum focuses on specific tribal groups and history from the perspective of native Americans, rather than that of European settlers. This includes precolonial history, relationships with the federal government, contact between Indians and non-Indians, contributions to contemporary culture, and even the origin of the word Indian itself.
Harold Tarbell, a consultant on the project, sees a need for a teaching curriculum that focuses on both native-American history and contemporary culture.
"Even in those schools with a lot of native content, they are still operating under a whole lot of stereotypes and misconceptions," says the former Mohawk chief of the Akwesasne Reserve, which lies in both the US and Canada. "Our objective is to put natives in a modern context and make it possible for them to develop personal relationships, student to student."
The creator of the Cradleboard Teaching Project, Buffy Sainte-Marie, is a diminutive Canadian singer and composer who has worked throughout her career to advance the cause of native Americans. She spent several years developing the multimedia teaching program.
"The one truly heartbreaking thing about being a native person," she says, "is the lack of self identity. Native people, indigenous people in general, are not genetically a part of the colonial heritage and are still struggling for self identity."
She was born on a Canadian reserve but raised in a non-Indian community in Massachusetts. "I was told as a child that Indian people simply didn't exist."
But even for children raised in a native-American community, there are questions surrounding identity. As Ms. Sainte-Marie explains, "What is a 14-year-old in a native community supposed to think of herself? You know, Who am I? Am I a 'Dances with Wolves?' Am I 'Pocahontas'?"
IN North America, more than 2 million people are of native-American or aboriginal heritage. Canada's aboriginal community has a higher profile than that in the US because it is a larger proportion of the population: 1 million of the country's 26 million people. But native Americans on both sides of the border share many problems, including high suicide rates, alcohol abuse, and unemployment.
Sainte-Marie believes that Cradleboard, funded by a $1.5 million grant from the Kellogg Foundation in Battle Creek, Mich., will not only improve what is taught in schools, but will enhance contact between Indians and non-Indians. "[The project] comes from the very positive experience I've had living in these two cultures, seeing how much they have to say," says Sainte-Marie, who works from Kapaa, Hawaii. "And then it's combined with my own appreciation of technology and how [it] should be in the hands of kids and all cultures."
Indian schools are paired with non-Indian schools and technical colleges, and students are encouraged to interact via computers. The interactive program also enables the schools to access resources about native-Americans.
Schools in Montana, Minnesota, Washington, New York, and South Dakota are participating in the project. They represent people of the Puyallup, Cree, Ojibwe, Mohawk, and Lakota.
Jim Ransom, a Mohawk living on the Akwesasne Reserve, is on the parent committee of the Akwesasne Freedom School. "The public schools are very good but they teach a white curriculum." He highlights the value of Cradleboard's interactive nature: "The intent ... is to share with partner, non-native schools a better understanding of the contributions of native people to mainstream society."