New resource infuses Indigenous studies concepts into outdoor education

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CORVALLIS, Ore. – Shortly after the end of the inaugural workshop to incorporate Indigenous studies into Oregon outdoor education, a Portland-area educator approached the presenters.

Her school district held an annual fourth-grade overnight trip on the Oregon Trail that was rooted in the white settler experience.

“The curriculum was presented as if nobody lived in Oregon prior to white people,” said Spirit Brooks, research, evaluation, and assessment coordinator with Oregon State University Extension Outdoor School.

“She asked ‘What would it look like if we blew up the curriculum and started over?” recalls Brooks, who put on the workshop with Leilani Sabzalian (Alutiq), an assistant professor of Indigenous Studies in Education at the University of Oregon.

Brooks and Sabzalian offered suggestions. The educator then brought together an advisory group and over the course of the last two years they stripped down and rebuilt the curriculum to reflect a shared history of land prior to Lewis and Clark and white settlement.

“They brought in members of the Confederate Tribes of Grand Ronde and other stakeholders, including educators well-versed in ethnic studies, school board members committed to the work, and an outside equity, diversity, and inclusion consultant familiar with outdoor education,” Brooks said. “They really refocused the whole program so that it was more land-based, described Indigenous peoples who lived on the land prior to white settlement, and how there are Indigenous peoples living here today. It is now a much more culturally responsive program.”

The success of that workshop and others led Brooks and Sabzalian to co-create a new online course, “Critical Orientations: Indigenous Studies and Outdoor Education.” Offered through OSU’s Professional and Continuing Education unit, the course, which now enrolls 193 students, supports outdoor educators in engaging with culturally responsive incorporation of Indigenous studies concepts into outdoor education curriculum and programming.

While outdoor school programs in Oregon serve fifth- and sixth-grade students, the course’s content applies broadly to all outdoor and experiential education. It is open-access, on-demand, and self-paced.

The course is designed to surface some of the common assumptions and misinformation about Indigenous people and cultures, particularly as they relate to outdoor school in Oregon. There are three main desired outcomes for educators:

  • Learn to critically analyze how Indigenous peoples and knowledge are included and represented in outdoor education and the consequences of bias, misrepresentation and appropriation.
  • Reflect on how Indigenous studies concepts complicate and enrich the practice of outdoor educators.
  • Discover alternative curricular framings and orientations and support peer collaboration to develop ideas for different contexts using curricular self-evaluation tools.

Among the broad topics covered are land acknowledgement, colonization, Native American representation in outdoor education, sovereignty and self-determination, and land-based education. The foundation of the course is a curriculum that uses the “6 P’s” – created by Sabzalian as a framework for outdoor educators to reshape how they think about their curriculum:

  • Place – Acknowledge that that you are always on Indigenous lands, which includes accompanying responsibilities and action.
  • Presence – A challenge to the myth that Indigenous people have disappeared. They still live in Oregon.
  • Perspective – Students can learn from Indigenous peoples and their relationship to the land.
  • Political nationhood – Native nations, including the nine federally recognized tribal nations are sovereign and have a political relationship with the state of Oregon.
  • Power – Challenge power dynamics and recognize Indigenous creativity and agency and avoiding framing Native people as damaged or victims of oppression.
  • Partnerships – Cultivating and sustaining meaningful partnerships with Indigenous people’s` organizations and nations.

Brooks is a citizen of Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes. On her second day with Extension Outdoor School, she attended a meeting of the Oregon Indian Education Association with Kristopher Elliott, an Oregon State University Extension Service assistant director who leads statewide Outdoor School.

“We heard that Native Americans had never been invited to talk about outdoor school curriculum or the experiences their kids had with outdoor school,” Brooks said.

From there, Brooks and Sabzalian piloted professional development sessions that turned into all-day workshops. The online course is meant to reach a larger audience.

“We hope that by reflecting on the six P’s and how Indigenous studies concepts enrich their practices as outdoor educators, they can re-think a curriculum that doesn’t misrepresent and misappropriate Native American culture,” Brooks said. “Overall, it helps move the needle to a more equitable and culturally responsive outdoor school and education in general.”

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