LA GRANDE — Jack Weatherford’s “Indian Givers” is not usually required reading for high school students, but when Eastern Oregon University graduate Althea Huesties-Wolf rewrote the GED program for the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, she made it part of the curriculum.
The book consists of essays that cross genres and combine indigenous stories with economic analysis and the history of colonialism in the Americas. She initially planned to cover the book in a term, but adjusted the pace to suit her students — prior curriculum lacked this flexibility. The result was custom-fitted lesson plans for people seeking college-ready skills in science, math and language arts.
On average, the students she taught dropped out of school in ninth or tenth grade, and many face difficulties outside of the classroom.
“Because of what students come to the classroom with, you have to be sensitive to the story you don’t know,” Huesties-Wolf said. “You get these kids and they feel things from home and bring it to school with them.”
In fall 2019, the GED program had its own classroom for the first time, allowing Huesties-Wolf’s to showcase her background in writing — she has a master’s degree in nonfiction from EOU. She expanded the program’s impact and developed an assessment process to determine which students were ready to schedule a GED test right away.
Huesties-Wolf and her family are members of the Hawtmi clan, a more isolated group that made their homes in the southern area of the Umatilla reservation, where she is a tribal member. Her mother still lives in that remote area, and her great-grandfather established a drum group with the same name that her son is now learning from.
She remembers gathering and preserving traditional foods, sewing clothes and pulling rye with her mother, back when jobs were scarce on the reservation. Since graduating from EOU, she’s held a variety of roles within the CTUIR and its partner organizations. She is now the Hanford policy analyst for the Department of Natural Resources First Food Policy Program that she said connects her to those childhood memories.
The range of reading material in the GED classroom now reflects the many-faceted lives of Huesties-Wolf and her students. Their bookshelf includes a wide array of multicultural essays, poems and stories at all reading levels.
“I tried to incorporate multi-genre because when you’re Native American you have to be multi-genre,” she said. “I can’t just be home on a day off when I know there’s roots in the field, medicine to gather, or berries to pick. Some of the best observations of the resources are when gatherers, hunters and fisherman talk about their annual outings. I consider it Cultural STEAM (Science Technology Engineering Art Math).”
As her students worked through “Under the Hawthorn Tree,” “The Rabbit-Proof Fence” and “Lions of Little Rock,” Huesties-Wolf was on a learning curve of her own.
“I learned to slow down and read one essay, or a portion of it in class and the other part they read at home. We would spend a week on one essay to ensure we all understood it,” she said. “My hope is that all of my students go off and change the world for the better.”