Indigenous Studies at Penn Charter: A Living Present and Complex Past

Indigenous Studies at Penn Charter: A Living Present and Complex Past

Indigenous Studies at Penn Charter: A Living Present and Complex Past

At Penn Charter, few things inspire change faster than students articulating a pressing need. When a group of teachers developed a VITAL summer grant project examining how Penn Charter tells the stories of indigenous peoples, two current students decided to spend two weeks of their summer in collaborative work: reading, traveling, discussing and creating curriculum to support indigenous studies at Penn Charter.

“I’ve been interested in indigenous history for the past couple of years as I've begun to see more information about indigenous people on social media and in the news,” senior Georgia O’Gallagher explained. “I’ve especially been interested in environmentalism and how indigenous activists are frequently the ones at the forefront of the fight against the climate crisis.

Penn Charter summer grant project Wissahickon

VITAL participants, along with Adam Waterbear Depaul, wrestled with the problematic narratives around Teedyscung Statue in Wissahickon Valley Park: The stoic figure is intended to represent the Lenape but is actually wearing Plains tribal dress.

“This year in American Studies I had an in- depth education about indigenous history in school, and I wanted others at Penn Charter to have the opportunity to learn what I learned and, hopefully, even more.”

Georgia’s summer work included “auditioning” two possible books for the Upper School English curriculum: a speculative novel imagining a continent that had never been colonized, and a memoir chronicling missing and murdered indigenous women. She also examined the entire division’s current course offerings to see where indigenous studies might naturally fit.

Maisie Optenberg, a sophomore, worked with Middle School teacher Jim Fiorile to examine how the seventh-grade trip might work more organically to support connections with local Lenape groups. In her conversations with Adam Waterbear Depaul of the Lenape Nation of Pennsylvania and her subsequent visit to the Penn Museum, Maisie learned that Lenape communities had been forced by the U.S. government to relocate to Oklahoma, Wisconsin and Ontario. Current members of the Lenape diaspora cite a desire to reconnect with the Lenapehoking, or homeland, from which they were forcibly removed — and with student interest inspiring decision-making, Penn Charter has a unique ability to support these connections.

In November, Maisie created an advisory lesson to introduce the entire Upper School student body to Pennsylvania’s Carlisle Indian Industrial School, one of many institutions that severed cultural ties between children and their tribes, initiating decades of generational trauma. Carlisle served as a model for other North American schools that would continue to operate into the 1960s with the support of state and federal governments. With Maisie’s advisory lesson as a springboard, teachers could then create connections or add to the conversation in classroom contexts.

Penn Charter teachers are not new to indigenous studies. The third grade team — Jill Einbender, Joel Eckel and VITAL participant Teodora Nedialkova — have centered Lenape folkways and culture for over 20 years. VITAL participant Monica Freely, along with the entire kindergarten team, has been sharing Lenape stories and growing Kingsessing beans, a Native crop from which kindergarteners are now saving seeds to regrow in the spring of 2023. The VITAL cohort worked alongside Adam Depaul to create meaningful and respectful pedagogical design, beginning with centering indigenous people to tell their own stories.

In Penn Charter’s current curriculum, students entering at different points in the pre-K through 12 span are sometimes left curious about essential concepts, vocabulary and history; the curricular “lily pads” of third grade, seventh grade, Quakerism, and elective Upper School courses bypass portions of the student body. One of the goals of the VITAL cohort, supported by the Center for Public Purpose, is to empower faculty as they expand indigenous literacy, including the Lenape people’s complex relationship with the Penn family.

And again, students have been at the forefront of this work: In 2020, then-eighth graders Arielle Willis and Sarah Price, with the support of teacher Shelby Tucker, researched and delivered a nuanced historical text on the history of the Lenape, including the Penn family’s land dealings: “In the end, counter to Quaker beliefs, they took more land than what was originally agreed upon in the treaty.”

Their work, and the later additions of Amani Rivers and Chandler Turner (both OPC 2022), formalized the school’s current land acknowledgment practices.

At the core of indigenous studies work is justice, equity and inclusion. Just as the school has examined William Penn’s identity as a slaveholder, the community is also exploring the larger effect of displacement of Native peoples due to European “settlement.” Some Penn Charter faculty and families have shared their own stories of contemporary Native life. But in the absence of a large number of indigenous community members, the institutional tendency is often to “disappear” Native peoples and stories, beyond intermittent historical and cultural units. The VITAL group’s work lifts up cross-disciplinary, collaborative, project-based learning, in alignment with the dynamic Portrait of a Penn Charter Learner. With students at the forefront of these conversations, Penn Charter is well poised to lift up Native peoples and stories not as “past,”
“elsewhere” or "gone,” but as both present and deeply connected with our own stories. 

– Lisa Turner

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