Education Opinion

Identifying and Teaching Gifted Native American Students

By Tamara Fisher — January 07, 2008 11 min read
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A few of you here have requested that I write about my experiences teaching gifted Native American children. An article that I wrote on the topic is in the Fall 2007 issue of “Understanding Our Gifted.” (That whole issue has a theme of cultural diversity.) Most of today’s post is pulled from my article in that issue. (That’s why I’ve waited to cover this topic… Almost everything I wanted to say I had already written, but I needed to wait for it to come out in UOG first.)

The field of gifted education has done a very admirable job in recent years of raising awareness about the under-representation and unique needs of gifted students from culturally and linguistically diverse populations. The National Association for Gifted Children’s efforts to reach out to the teachers of these students through the “Javits-Frasier Teacher Scholarship for Diverse Talent Development” is just one example. All gifted children, whatever their cultural, socioeconomic, or linguistic background, ought to have their unique learning needs acknowledged and met by their schools. Yet, even in our praiseworthy efforts to reach diverse students, our gifted Native American youth continue to be disappointingly overlooked in gifted programs, in research, and in discussions of under-represented populations. Perhaps this is easily attributable to the fact that Native Americans make up a significantly smaller portion of our overall population compared to minorities of Hispanic, African, and Asian descent. But that shouldn’t make them any less worthy of consideration. And thankfully, their “overlooked” status is beginning to change. Research on talent development among Native youth is forthcoming from the National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented, for example.

As a K-12 Gifted Education Specialist for a school district located on an Indian Reservation, understanding, identifying, and meeting the needs of gifted Native American students is of keen importance to me. For a dozen years in this position, accurate and proportional identification has been a goal achieved. My aim here is to shed light on strategies that have worked in my school district and to offer ideas that may assist readers in identifying and serving the needs of the gifted Native youth in their lives.

It is first important to note that the term “Native American” (or, if you prefer, “American Indian”) does not refer to one distinct culture or people. More than 500 different tribes are recognized in the U.S., each with its own unique culture, traditions, and language. For every characteristic or strategy that may apply to the gifted youth of one tribe, the opposite could be true for the gifted youth of another tribe. Please bear in mind, then, that the strategies and characteristics mentioned here are general ones; I strongly recommend that readers view this information through the lens of what they already know about the culture and traditions of the Indian children with whom they work. To best reach the gifted Indian youth in our schools, it is imperative that teachers and gifted specialists become aware of their tribal culture and traditions because these cultures and traditions can greatly influence how a student expresses and utilizes his or her gifts and talents.

My first suggestion, then, is that teachers and gifted specialists find a means of educating themselves about the cultures and traditions of the Indian students they teach. This doesn’t mean one need become an expert, but simply that an increased awareness of these factors aids in understanding and identifying gifted Native youth who equally need the services of a gifted program. In my case, acquiring knowledge of my Indian students’ culture(s) and traditions has been made easier through a unique opportunity provided to the teachers on our reservation by the local Tribal Education Department. Each fall, the Tribal Ed. Dept. puts on a full day of professional development for every teacher from every school on the reservation. For the past decade, we have learned about powwow etiquette, the Hellgate Treaty that created this reservation, distinctions between the different tribes living here, and cultural traditions like beading and gathering of the bitterroot, among many other topics. We have learned directly from tribal elders, members of the Tribal Council, parents of our students, teachers from the local tribal college, and our students themselves. It is a highly unique opportunity, one that has aided my understanding of the place I live and its first inhabitants. Most importantly, it has helped me to discern how and why a gifted Indian child here may express and utilize his or her talents a bit differently than the so-called mainstream students who also live here do. While an opportunity such as this may not exist in other locations, it does remain an example of what could be created elsewhere, and of the benefits teachers can gain when they do pursue this knowledge, keeping in mind that the indirect beneficiaries are, of course, our students.

How to identify students for a gifted program is a hotly debated topic in schools and among those in the gifted education field. To IQ test or not to IQ test? If so, which one? What about a matrix or rating scale? There are no easy answers, as much as we may wish there were. A match must first exist between the identification method used (that for which you are identifying) and the services provided. Many great options for identifying gifted Native youth present themselves. A standardized non-verbal abilities test is a good place to begin. An excellent example of one is the NNAT (Naglieri Non-verbal Abilities Test). I also recommend adding to this some version of formalized observation, such as the Kingore Observation Inventory or the Renzulli Rating Scales (Scales for Rating the Behavioral Characteristics of Superior Students, or SRBCSS). It is important to keep in mind when reviewing the results that a gifted Native child may still show up somewhat differently on these measures. For example, my gifted Native students look much different on the “Leadership” section of the SRBCSS than my gifted non-Native students do because their style of leadership is not the same. This is not a problem so long as those reviewing the results know how and why differences may appear. Additionally, a lot of observation over the long-term by both the classroom teacher(s) and by the Gifted Specialist is equally beneficial in the identification of gifted Indian children. In my location, for example, the Indian children tend to be much quieter and more reserved than their non-Native peers are, so it can take more time for their gifts and talents to become apparent to the teachers. As the children become more comfortable with showing what they are capable of, it’s important that we recognize their abilities and provide them with appropriate academic services.

Inherent bias in standardized testing is often alleged but is less often explained. One question that our fourth graders encountered on a national standardized test a number of years ago is a great example. The correct answer necessitated that the child understand what an escalator was. Well, there are only two escalators in the entire state of Montana, the closest of which is a five-hour drive from here and on the other side of the Continental Divide from us (Montana is huge, a geographical diagonal of which is longer than the distance from Washington, DC, to Chicago). Most of our children (of all ethnic backgrounds) missed the question, not for lack of ability, but for lack of exposure. Had the term used been “lariat” or “stick game,” they would have done just fine, although it may then have put kids elsewhere at a disadvantage. An understanding of these types of distinctions is important when determining which children need gifted services. That their backgrounds may influence their understanding (or lack of understanding) of a question is apparent. It is up to us as professionals, then, to notice and distinguish when and why this may occur, and to be sure it doesn’t unnecessarily eliminate a child from appropriate academic services.

I’ve created a document attached to this post that lists a compilation of some characteristics to look for when aiming to identify the gifted Native students in your school. As mentioned before, keep in mind that some of these traits may be different for gifted Indian youth from other tribal cultures. Any variances from this list will be easier to spot the more educated readers are about the tribal culture(s) of their own students. It is not intended to be a “one size fits all” list.

I’d like to comment on a few specific items from the document, the first being academic excellence. I’ve noticed over the years that many of my gifted Native students seem to excel more academically after being identified for the gifted program than they did before. This is not to say that they didn’t stand out academically to begin with, because they did, but rather to point out that the intellectual and academic support that a gifted program offers students can aid in the continued academic development of our gifted Indian youth (just as it ought to and does for all gifted youth).

Additionally, it is important to note that some gifted Indian children feel a conflict between their intellectual aspirations and their cultural expectations. Over the years, I’ve found that many of my gifted Indian students ease this conflict by pursuing intellectually stimulating careers that directly benefit their tribe and reservation community, a level of adaptability I continue to marvel in. The beginnings of this adaptability are apparent in their school years, when they pursue culturally relevant topics for their independent projects in my gifted class, an example of how a gifted program can help these students early on to bridge what is often a gap between their culture and their schooling.

After being identified, on-going support for gifted Native American children, both in the regular classroom and in the gifted program, is an important piece of the puzzle. Three specific strategies I’ve found useful are 1) continued services, 2) an older role model, and 3) an understanding of “giftedness.” Across the country, gifted programming often stops in middle or high school. Advanced courses may be offered in lieu of a gifted program, but they don’t necessarily offer the same kind of social/emotional and academic support that a gifted specialist can provide. In our district, where gifted services (in addition to advanced courses) are offered clear through the 12th grade, identified students have continuous opportunities to take advantage of gifted programming. This is important for my Native GT students because many of them take longer to develop relationships and they appreciate long-term connections. With a continuation of services into middle and high school, the program can accommodate this style difference.

Native American students typically do not desire to stand out from the crowd, a factor that contributes to the challenges schools often have in identifying them. This factor can also mean an identified student may not want to take advantage of the opportunities provided when he or she is entered into a gifted program. However, matching a newly-identified gifted Indian student with an older gifted Indian student provides a great opportunity for mentoring, as well as a means to help the student understand the benefits of gifted programming and that others like him have been through the same process.

Furthermore, I believe it is imperative to let gifted children know that being gifted and being part of a gifted program isn’t about being “better.” It’s simply a matter of a learning difference – and appropriately accommodating that learning difference. While all gifted children can benefit from this point of view, for my gifted Indian students, whose humility and respectfulness pervade their thoughts and actions, it is a point of view that offers them a sigh of relief. They love being challenged, but they shy away from being “better.” When they understand that being in GT is about reaching their learning needs and not about bestowing golden status on certain students, they embrace the services offered and thrive.

A few years ago, I surveyed the parents of my gifted Indian students to gather some feedback and input from them regarding their perspectives about their child’s learning needs and participation in the gifted program. Two responses in particular underscore the importance of making sure these children are no longer overlooked. When asked, “How has being a part of the gifted program in school helped your gifted Native American child?” they replied:
“She seems more confident of her place in the world and in her tribe.” “He is less likely to underachieve in school now because he knows that others see his abilities, too.”
These precious children are as much in need of gifted services as any other gifted child. It is high time we make the necessary efforts to change their status from “overlooked” to “identified.”

Anyone wanting to learn more about this topic might consider visiting the following links:

Philosophical Perspectives of Gifted and Talented American Indian Education

American Indian Students’ Values Spring from a Rich Heritage

A Personal Perspective on Tribal-Alaska Native Gifted and Talented Education

Identifying Gifted and Talented American Indian Students: An Overview

American Indian Gifted and Talented Students: Problems and Proposed Solutions

Nurturing Creative/Artistic Giftedness in American Indian Students

Through Navajo Eyes: Examining Differences in Giftedness

Journal of American Indian Education

The opinions expressed in Unwrapping the Gifted are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.