Why Speak/Sing Native

 In 2014, the Oregon Department of Education’s State Board adopted the Native American/Alaska Native Education State Plan, which states:

“Every school district in Oregon implements (K-12) historically accurate, culturally embedded, place-based, contemporary, and developmentally appropriate Native American/Alaska Native curriculum….”

Enacted in 2017, Senate Bill 13 requires the development of curriculum that is:

“…Historically accurate, culturally relevant, community-based, contemporary and developmentally appropriate….”

 Every year, we produce the Jim Pepper Native Arts Festival (aka Jim PepperFest) with a theme. In 2018, our theme was Making the Invisible Visible, referencing a document produced by the Portland Indian Leaders Roundtable noting that 24% of all children in foster care in Multnomah County were Native and only 37% of Native high school students in Portland graduate on time.

 “Currently, Native people count disproportionately among the urban poor. We experience the highest rates of homelessness, poverty and unemployment of all ethnic groups; depression, addiction and diabetes impact us in numbers far exceeding the norm… Even with our large (Portland) population and the strong evidence of need, resources have not been equitably distributed to our community. There are false perceptions that we no longer exist and chronic undercounts, inaccurate data and stereotypes about what we look like perpetuate this misconception.” –– Making the Invisible Visible, Portland Indian Leaders Roundtable (PILR)

 This statement appears on the Oregon Department of Education website:

 “For years the state has been missing a critical opportunity to fully leverage the strengths, assets, and contributions our Native American students bring to their communities. The lack of accurate and complete curricula may contribute to the persistent achievement and opportunity gaps between Native American and other students.” – Oregon Department of Education

 We see the “strengths, assets and contributions our Native American students bring to their communities” very clearly, and our program is about recognizing and validating them. We are certain that the lack of culturally relevant music curricula contributes significantly to these identified persistent achievement and opportunity gaps, and that it is detrimental to the mental health of Native students. There is no place in standard K12 curricula where one might find Native American musicians either recognized or modeling success.

Oregon K-12 music curricula are entirely about other cultures, as is true generally nationwide. There is an institutional bias. Over many generations and within memory recent enough, North American indigenous people were forbidden to speak their languages, conduct traditional spiritual ceremonies and sing their songs, and until very recently were generally regarded as “the Vanishing Race,” expected to assimilate or die.

The absence of indigenous music and musicians in the K-12 repertoire is evidence that the problem is systemic. Jim Pepper is a prime example of the invisibility of Native musicians in that he is an Oregon-born musician whose life and achievements ought to be a source of pride, whose body of work drew recognition from a winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Music and elsewhere, and he is the only Oregon musician whose instrument resides in a glass case in a Smithsonian Museum, and yet he is unknown to K-12 music educators.