Bringing American Indian stories to life in classrooms

Twelve American Indian nations call Wisconsin home. Each has its own customs, its own identity, its own story.

A new website, WisconsinFirstNations.org, is helping educators tell those stories to students from kindergarten through high school. Wisconsin Act 31 requires schools to teach American Indian Studies throughout a student’s career and to maintain instructional materials that appropriately reflect diverse cultures.

WisconsinFirstNations.org gives an online home to materials that will start classroom conversations through questions such as: How long have humans lived here? On whose ancestral lands do you live? Who are your contemporary tribal neighbors?

“People have very little knowledge about who native people are today. We don’t understand the history, the complexity of the diversity within Indian nations,” says Aaron Bird Bear, the assistant dean for student diversity programs in UW–Madison’s School of Education, who played a leading role in the development of the website.

Although legislators passed Act 31 more than a quarter century ago, it has been largely unfunded and hasn’t been widely implemented. Bird Bear and curriculum and instruction professor Simone Schweber secured backing from UW–Madison’s Ira and Ineva Reilly Baldwin Wisconsin Idea Endowment to design and produce the website, which is a collaboration among eight partners, including the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction and Wisconsin Public Television.

“There isn’t one native identity,” says Bird Bear, who also oversees the American Indian Curriculum Services unit, which coordinates Wisconsin Indian education efforts in teacher education programs. “Act 31 is an invitation to get to know the deep human story of the western Great Lakes. It helps us understand our neighbors. It helps us understand our own shared history.”