Inviting American Indian arts curriculum into a school: The short life and long term effects of an arts program

James W. Bequette
School of Education, Stanford University
July, 2006


This dissertation examines what was made possible when for three years a small off-reservation school district with a large American Indian population implemented a culturally responsive Exemplary Arts Program. By inviting local artists into classrooms, the initiative exposed students in this district to arts activities that American Indian participants considered culturally authentic, and teachers described as engaging opportunities to represent living California Indian cultures in the schools. The 14- month research study looked for residue of the curriculum two years after external funding ended. In semi- structured conversations, local Indian and non-Indian stakeholders assessed the cultural significance of the initiative's arts activities and analyzed the process the school district followed when conceiving, actualizing, and choosing not to continue those traditional arts experiences. Using eclectic methods, this study taps two distinct types of data: traditional qualitative sources, including interviews, classroom and campus observations, program documents, student artwork, and local and national history of Indian education policy; and data gathered empirically by the researcher while teaching for 15 years in these schools and systematized for the study. Observable outcomes for Native students were positive, but short-term. For American Indian artists, program outcomes represent more subtle, longer lasting, shifts in attitudes, and included designating the local schools--- often perceived as unwelcoming---as the best venue for passing on knowledge about American Indian cultures; recognizing their agency as 'real' artists and efficacy as cultural gatekeepers; and identifying more generic 'Indian' art forms equally relevant for the cultural literacy of their children as the strands of regionally specific California tribal cultures they taught. This last finding presents opportunities for better informed teaching in multicultural classrooms. To facilitate the preparation of art teachers for the difficult task of implementing culturally relevant curriculum, an existing typology for gauging the influence of mainstream culture on Native artists' practices is expanded. A new fourth category represents the influence prolonged contact with other indigenous cultures has had on what today is neo- traditional or pan-Indian. Art teachers can use this systematic approach to scaffold student awareness of different genres of contemporary Native art and in time judge traditional relevance for themselves.