BYU ARTS Partnership brings authentic Native American art to Utah elementary school curriculum
Within Utah, there are eight sovereign Native American nations, each with a vibrant culture. And yet, on her past visits to Utah elementary classrooms, BYU ARTS Partnership facilitator Brenda Beyal would routinely hear teachers express their reluctance to teach Native American materials, fearing to inappropriately portray native cultures.
Now, Beyal, her colleagues and BYU students are seeking to address teachers’ concerns through the Native American Curriculum Initiative (NACI). In an unprecedented approach, the NACI team works directly with Utah tribes to produce sample arts lesson plans, cultivate a list of Native American artists who can visit elementary classrooms and craft principles for culturally sensitive pedagogy.
The NACI’s strength comes from the relationships Beyal’s group has developed with Utah’s Native American tribal leaders. “It was important for us to go to each of the eight sovereign nations here in Utah, and we asked them, ‘What would you like the children of Utah to know about your tribe?’” Beyal said. “Every tribal nation said, ‘That we are still here.’”
To emphasize that Native Americans are not just historical people but are living today, the NACI helps arrange for current Native American artists to visit Utah classrooms, drawing on recommendations from the tribes.
“What better way to amplify native voices than through storytelling through the arts?” Beyal said. “Students get to rub shoulders with Native American artists. We tell stories, we have intergenerational connections, there’s laughter, there is just that feeling of inclusion.”
Tribal leaders also wanted teachers to know that although there are five tribal groups in Utah — the Navajo, Paiute, Ute, Goshute and Shoshone — they are divided among eight distinct nations, each recognized by the federal government.
“Each has their own songs, their own dances, their own stories,” said Beyal. “A person from the Confederated Tribes of the Goshute Reservation, by the Nevada border, will not identify as a member of the Skull Valley band of Goshute.”
Every NACI lesson plan is carefully crafted to reflect the cultures of these specific nations. For example, the group spent nearly two years working with the Northwestern Tribe of the Shoshone Nation to select the right native vocabulary for a dramatic adaptation of a Shoshone story in one lesson plan. The group has also partnered with BYU’s Living Legends to develop lesson plans that give greater context to the cultural dances students and teachers see performed.
Because of these painstaking efforts, 16 of the 26 Native American lesson plans the NACI has so far developed have the tribes’ official stamp of approval. Knowing that the tribal nations have reviewed the lesson plans word by word gives teachers confidence that they are sharing accurate information.
“I think it really helps kids connect with the stories and the history that native people have,” said BYU public health student Naloni Felix.
The NACI began in 2018, after Beyal helped present a few lesson plans on Native American culture at Art’s Express, the ARTS Partnership’s annual summer workshop, which about 500 teachers attend each year.
The enthusiastic response prompted the ARTS Partnership to expand the lesson plans into a bigger program to promote culturally sensitive arts teaching, in collaboration with the Utah Division of Arts and Museums. In 2021, the NACI’s efforts were recognized by a prestigious National Endowment for the Arts grant, which awarded the group $20,000 a year to continue their work.
The team decided to begin with Native American cultures because they saw a need to model for teachers how to approach sensitive materials. For instance, they suggest providing a video showing the sacred Mountain Sheep Dance rather than having children re-enact the dance themselves.
“You don’t change schools just with lesson plans — you change schools by teaching faculty philosophies of empathy and understanding,” said BYU ARTS Partnership director Cally Flox. “Professional development for teachers is a huge part of our program because it will help teachers navigate any cultural materials they bring into the classroom.”
The work the NACI is doing is “unprecedented everywhere,” Flox added. “Our commitment to partnering with Native Americans to ensure their voices are truly heard is resulting in improved relationships, improved content and improved practices.”
See sample NACI lesson plans on the BYU ARTS Partnership webpage.