School of Education News

Event to spotlight 25th anniversary of Act 31, American Indian curriculum

August 13, 2014
by Todd Finkelmeyer

Educators and a range of stakeholders from across the state are gathering in Madison on Tuesday, Aug. 19 for an event dedicated to celebrating the 25th anniversary of Wisconsin Act 31.

The program is free and open to the public, and runs from 4:30 to 7:30 p.m. at the Crowne Plaza Hotel, 4402 E. Washington Ave.

State legislators in 1989 passed statutes collectively known Act 31 in an effort to infuse American Indian studies into public education. Since that time, Wisconsin has required instruction in the history, culture and tribal sovereignty of the federally recognized tribes and bands in the state at both K-12 schools and in teacher education programs. Since July 1991, anyone seeking a license to serve as a professional educator in the state must receive instruction in these areas.

This legislation is rooted in the heated and sometimes violent treaty rights controversies related to the 1983 Voight Decision -- the federal court ruling which affirmed the reserved rights of the Lake Superior Bands of Chippewa. Through the 1980s and early 1990s, emotionally charged battles over tribal spear fishing and hunting rights took place between American Indians and non-Indians in Northern Wisconsin. At that time, the curriculum in Wisconsin's public schools included little about the history, culture or tribal sovereignty of the federally recognized tribes and bands in the state.

The Act 31 requirements were designed to provide Wisconsin's students with instruction in American Indian Studies because of its academic appropriateness and its potential to serve as a positive force with which to combat misunderstanding and social unrest.

Aaron Bird Bear
Aaron Bird Bear
“Here we are, 25 years after an intense conflict played itself out in the north woods, and even though there have been some lasting tensions people are generally focused on moving forward and trying to find better ways to understand each other,” says UW-Madison’s Aaron Bird Bear, the student services coordinator with the School of Education’s Student Diversity Programs, and an American Indian curriculum consultant. “So this 25th anniversary is a great celebration that we haven’t had the intense levels of disagreement that we have had in the past and we’re finding ways to help schools, teachers and educational leaders deepen their understanding of the 12,000 year human story of the Great Lakes.”

Three UW-Madison School of Education alumni -- Alan Caldwell (Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis, 1997), J P Leary (Educational Policy Studies, 2011) and David O’Connor (Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis, 2013) -- have served as the lead consultants for the American Indian Studies Program at the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction.  They have led the efforts over the years to support teachers, schools and school districts through professional development and technical assistance, including curriculum development.

The Aug. 19 event is titled “Celebrating the 25th Anniversary of Wisconsin Act 31 (1989/1991).” Those planning to attend are asked to email Brian Jackson, the Wisconsin Indian Education Association Board President.

Among those scheduled to speak are: Caldwell (Menominee Nation), co-author of Act 31; Brian Jackson (Lac du Flambeau Ojibwe Nation), Board President of the Wisconsin Indian Education Association; Tony Evers, the state superintendent of public instruction; UW-Madison Professor Patty Loew (Bad River Band of Lake Superior Ojibwe Nation), a faculty member with the Department of Life Sciences Communication and author of “Indian Nations in Wisconsin and Native Peoples of Wisconsin”; and the School of Education’s Bird Bear and Wisconsin Public Television’s Mik Derks.

Although legislators passed Act 31 25 years ago, it has been largely unfunded and hasn’t been widely implemented. UW-Madison Professor Simone Schweber (Curriculum and Instruction), Bird Bear and a team of collaborators from across the state received funding from UW-Madison’s Ira and Ineva Reilly Baldwin Wisconsin Idea Endowment to further provide teachers with professional development tools and resources for the classroom.

Why Act 31 website
        To learn more visit the Why Act 31 website.
Bird Bear will talk about this coalition’s efforts to design and disseminate much-needed teaching tools and resources focusing on Wisconsin’s American Indian tribes and bands to teacher education programs across the state, and to Wisconsin’s 424 public school districts. Bird Bear will also be sharing the School of Education's recent efforts to create an online resource for all pre-service and in-service teachers in the state. (To learn more, visit the Why Act 31 website.)

“The 25th anniversary of Act 31 reminds us we still have a lot of work to do, but it’s really a triumph of creating a shared future together instead of having the great antagonism of the past,” says Bird Bear.

Derks is a producer with Wisconsin Public Television and is also a member of the Act 31 Coalition. He developed a series of 12 documentaries titled “Wisconsin Tribal Histories” that will begin airing on WPT Aug. 26.

For a complete list of speakers and for additional information about the anniversary event, visit the Wisconsin Indian Education Association (WIEA) website.

Sponsors for the event include: UW-Madison School of Education; Wisconsin Indian Education Association; Wisconsin Media Lab; Wisconsin Historical Society; Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction; University of Wisconsin Cooperative Extension’s Community Development Educators; UW-Green Bay’s First Nation Studies Program; UW-Eau Claire’s American Indian Studies Program; UW-Madison’s Tribal Libraries, Archives and Museum’s Project; and Wisconsin Public Television.

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