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Teaching Resource: The 7 Essential Understandings of California Native History and Culture



The creation of easily accessible, truthful and respectful Native Studies model curricula exists only in a handful of states, such as Oregon, Wisconsin, Washington and Montana. California will soon join the club as both the work of the California Truth and Healing Council and the Native American Studies Model Curriculum are underway.


We can all prepare for the arrival of these much-needed resources by becoming more familiar with the Seven Essential Understandings of California Native culture and history, prepared by the California Indian Museum and Cultural Center based on those developed under Montana’s Office of Public Instruction.


Essential Understanding #1:

There is great diversity among the 150+ tribes of California in their languages, cultures, histories & governments. Each tribe has a distinct and unique cultural heritage that contributes to modern California.

It's important to recognize and honor this diversity, rather than treating all California Native cultures as a monolith. Situate your lessons in the local Indigenous places you live and teach.



Essential Understanding #2:

There is great diversity among individual Native Americans as identity is developed, defined and redefined by many entities, organizations and people. There is a continuum of Native identity ranging from assimilated to traditional and is unique to each individual. There is no generic Native American.

It's important to understand and appreciate this long history and the depth of knowledge and experience that California Natives have developed over time. Pan-Indigenous movements, such as the Native occupation of Alcatraz, as well as traditional Native practices, such as basketweaving, are equally important aspects of Native identity.


Essential Understanding #3:

The ideologies of Native traditional beliefs and spirituality persist into modern day life as Tribal cultures, traditions and languages are still practiced by many Native American people and are incorporated into how tribes govern and manage their affairs. Additionally, each tribe has their own oral history beginning with their genesis that is as valid as written histories. These histories predate the “discovery” of North America.

Creation stories tether each Tribe to their ancestral homeland. It's important to recognize the importance of these lands to California Natives and to work together to protect them.



Essential Understanding #4:

There were many foreign, state and federal policies put into place throughout American history that have impacted California Native people, and continue to shape who they are today. Much of Native history can be related through several major policy periods, including the Mission Period, The Gold Rush/Allotment Period, Boarding School Period, Termination and Self-determination.

It’s important to acknowledge that California Natives have survived in the face of settler colonial violence, genocide, forced relocation, sexual and indentured slavery, and the suppression of cultures and traditions. What can students learn from contemporary Native advocacy success stories, to disrupt cultural erasure and the oppression of Native lifeways?



Essential Understanding #5:

Reservations are land that have been reserved by the Tribes for their own use through treaties and were not “given” to them. The principle that land should be acquired from Natives only through their consent with treaties involved three assumptions:
  1. That both parties to treaties were sovereign powers.

  2. That Native Tribes had some form of transferable title to the land.

  3. That acquisition of Native lands was solely a government matter not to be left to individual colonists.

Although California Natives did face more than a century of forced relocations, it's important to recognize Tribal sovereignty and autonomy.



Essential Understanding #6

History is a story and most often related through the subjective experience of the teller. Histories are being rediscovered and revised. History told from a Native perspective conflicts with what most of mainstream history tells us.

California Natives have contributed greatly to the rich and diverse heritage of California. It's important to honor and recognize these contributions, and to work to uplift Native perspectives and experiences in the context of settler colonialism.



Essential Understanding #7:

Under the American legal system, Native tribes have sovereign powers, separate and independent from the federal and state governments. However, the extent and breadth of Tribal sovereignty is not the same for each tribe.

Since Native communities have always been sovereign Nations since time immemorial, it’s important to respect Tribal sovereignty whether the Tribe or Band is recognized by a colonial government or not. Explore the origins of this legal system in California in a lesson on the 18 unratified treaties.



Incorporating these understandings into your classroom teaching helps facilitate truth and healing efforts within Native communities by:
  • promoting cultural restoration

  • validating Native experiences

  • centering Native voices and perspectives

  • acknowledging Native sovereignty and agency

Overall, it's essential to respect and honor California Native cultures. This means acknowledging the injustices that have been committed against all Native Americans, as well as taking active steps to support Native communities and protect their cultural heritage.


Visit the California Indian Museum and Cultural Center to teach the essential understandings as they are using their student-facing slides!




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