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Professional Development Opinion

Response: Focusing on the Assets of Native American Students

By Larry Ferlazzo — April 24, 2019 15 min read
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(This is the final part of a three-part series. You can see Part One here and Part Two here.)

The new question-of-the-week is:

What are the biggest challenges facing Native American students and how can they be addressed?

Part One‘s responses come from Mandy Smoker Broaddus, Gregg Castro, and Jennifer Jilot. You can listen to a 10-minute conversation I had with Mandy and Gregg on my BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

Part Two‘s contributors were Dr. Susan C. Faircloth, Kelly Sassi, and Jennifer Borgioli.

Today’s responses are written by Timothy San Pedro, Alayna Eagle Shield, and Amanda Holmes. I’ve also included comments from readers.

Response From Timothy San Pedro & Alayna Eagle Shield

Timothy San Pedro is an assistant professor of multicultural and equity studies in education at Ohio State University. His scholarship focuses on the intricate link between motivation, engagement, and identity construction to curricula and pedagogical practices that recenter content and conversations upon Indigenous histories, knowledges, and literacies. He is an inaugural Gates Millennium Scholar, Cultivating New Voices Among Scholars of Color Fellow, a Ford Fellow, a Concha Delgado Gaitan Council of Anthropology in Education Presidential Fellow, and a Spencer Fellow.

Alayna Eagle Shield (Húŋkpapȟa Lakȟóta) is a Standing Rock Sioux Tribal Citizen and Native American Community Academy Fellow:

In addressing the initial question asked of us—What are the biggest challenges facing Native American students and how can they be addressed?—we feel the need to change the nature of the question to properly contextualize the history of educational trauma Native American students (and other student from minoritized populations) have faced in the United States’ schooling system. Instead, we feel a more appropriate question framed in larger systemic structures would be: What must U.S. schooling systems do in order to properly recenter Native American students’ knowledges, literacies, tribal histories, and languages that have historically and contemporarily been excluded from such spaces?

Shifting this question is essential in order to decenter settler-colonial narratives that silence and cover up Indigenous histories and ways of knowing. Apart from schools relying on social justice and/or ethnic-studies curriculum that includes a more pluarlistic picture of the multiple contributions from minoritized and Indigenous groups, the United States educational system historically and currently relies on curriculum that justifies or hides the theft of Indigenous land and the enslavement of black and brown bodies to profit from that land. In such textbooks, Native American stories are relegated to a romanticized and fetishized history of either the “savage” or “noble” Natives who are locked in the past, absent from contemporary stories. Also absent from K-12 curriculum is the forced removal of Native American children from their parents’ arms and homes, transported to boarding schools where their language and tribal knowledges were stripped and ripped from them to forward Richard Pratt’s infamous educational goal: “Kill the Indian, save the man.”

These legacies of cultural and lingual genocide continue in present schooling settings. In what follows, Alayna shares two storied vignettes showing the subtle ways schooling systems continue to center Eurocentric knowledges, while forwarding what some have appropriated as culturally appropriate curricular decisions:

15 Minutes for a Lifetime of Knowledge

I (Alayna) worked as a consultant for the Bureau of Indian Education Native Languages Project and conducted evaluations for reservation schools in North Dakota and South Dakota. During a number of evaluations, I observed elders carrying a wealth of knowledge, books, art materials, and the responsibility of saving our languages without much materials or support from their administrators. They moved from room to room, and some had as little as 15 minutes to teach a quality, thorough lesson centered on tribal histories and traditional knowledge systems and languages. Students were eager to listen and learn, but those lessons were cut short in order to move on to the “core” classes that the schools test their students on. One of the biggest issues that came up was the need for funding support for teacher pay and to purchase materials. The other concern was for training of administration and “core” teachers so that the language teachers can be supported as they teach the importance of the language and other tribal knowledges. The 15 minutes the language teachers get with students should be carried throughout the school to keep the language alive and thriving.

Cultural Professional Development as Optional

Professional development (PD) usually happens once at the beginning of the year for reservation schools. PD had required sessions on discipline, behavior management, improvement of grades, and testing. There were also optional breakout sessions. One such elective session focused on language and culture and alternative schooling. They were not well attended. Many times, if there was a larger group of teachers in the sessions, they were checking the boxes to say they attended a culture session, or they are there to dispute the need for alternative learnings. It’s a tough conversation when non-native teachers are the majority teaching at tribal schools with no desire to enhance and support language and culture within the classrooms. How do we change these dynamics when we have a shortage of Native teachers and administrations who don’t understand the importance of language and culture being a part of every aspect of the school, not just the language and culture classes? We need to state in the mission, vision, scope of work for all teachers that the holistic wellness of the children, which demands language and culture, is the number-one priority for the school; grades and testing follow. We need educators who know the land, the place, and the community where they work.

Cultural Professional Development as Central: Concluding by Opening

Rather than only centering the damage done to Indigenous communities through education, we continue by sharing the desire, hopes, and transformative actions that we feel are crucial steps toward educational sovereignty that students need in order to center themselves, their histories, their innate traditional knowledges, and their languages. Identity has to be nurtured. Children need to be loved. What does it mean to be (for Alayna’s community) Lakota/Dakota? What does it mean to be in relation to the land, to live with the land? To nurture the land so it nourishes us? These are innate practices and beliefs that students understand on a molecular level, but they forgot, or their parents forgot, yet as a school we can remind them of their power and help them remember. We need practices of sustaining and revitalizing languages and traditional knowledges to be able to be true allies as teachers within tribal school systems. Our children need us to stand with them and help them remember.

To offer a glimpse into what is being done about these issues, we conclude by highlighting four teacher-preparation programs all funded by the Indian Professional Development Program (a part of the U.S. Department of Education) with Indigenous scholars serving as the principal investigators on such grant programs. Each program (see below for active links) focuses on the recruitment, training, and financial and emotional support for Indigenous teachers with the express focus on having those teachers return to their or other’s tribal community schools. Their training is rooted in culturally and linguistically relevant curriculum and pedagogy in an effort to connect lessons in classrooms to topics, issues, questions, and knowledge already being forwarded in tribal communities. And, in training these future Indigenous educators, is the reliance upon their own epistemologies and stories that, through these programs, become central to their teaching and not on the periphery of it. Having dedicated members from the community who have an intricate link to those communities where they work can create expanded spaces within schools for students to learn their culture, remember their history, and practice their languages in supportive, familial, and caring classrooms.

Indigenous Teacher Education Project

Indigenous Knowledge for Effective Education Program

Empowering Relationships

Ti’tooq’an Cuukweneewit AlterNATIVE Route

Response From Amanda Holmes

Amanda Holmes is Kanien’keha:ka (Mohawk) on her mother’s side, Highland Scottish on her father’s side. She grew up in the Hudson River Valley of New York. She has had her Clan returned to her. She is Turtle Clan.

She recently received her doctorate in language, reading, and culture in the Department of Teaching, Learning and Sociocultural Studies at the University of Arizona’s College of Education. Her dissertation, “Geographies of Home, Memory, and Heart: Mohawk Elder Praxis, Land, Language, and Knowledge Woven in Place,” won the 2018 CAE Frederick Erickson Outstanding Dissertation Award from the Council on Anthropology and Education (CAE):

“For Indigenous people, the concept of settler democracy can only be an oxymoron. Their attrition at the hands of that democracy reflects the core feature of settler colonialism, which is first and foremost a project of replacement."—Patrick Wolfe

Schooling in the United States for Indigenous Peoples remains part of a Settler-Colonialist project of replacement (Wolfe, 2016), a neutralizing project of invisibilization and cognitive, epistemological, linguistic, and cultural replacement for Indigenous students and communities. The biggest challenge to Indigenous students is education in the context of Settler-Colonialism: The ‘democratic project’ of U.S. education does not offer transformative possibilities that take seriously the self-determining aspirations of Indigenous students and Nations. Schooling has never existed as ‘democratic’ for Indigenous peoples in this country; it has been imposed on top of Indigenous lands, communities, knowledge and ethical systems, epistemologies, memories, dreams, and languages.

Transformative and liberatory educational contexts do exist, however, and these are embedded within students’ lived experiences of Indigenous intergenerational knowledge practices and pedagogies, the very networks of relationship that U.S. schooling has not only ignored but obfuscated and disrupted in relation to Indigenous peoples. These Indigenous community-centered processes and practices of education, traditional ways of knowing that have sparked the resilience of countless generations, have received little attention, care, respect, or support within the ‘democratic project’ of U.S. education.

For Indigenous peoples, the U.S. system of education fails to recognize, value, include, support, or sustain the existence, persistence, and resilience of Indigenous community-centered knowledge systems and the meanings these hold for their People. Vast, intricate webs of intergenerational relationships between human beings and the beyond-human world form the core and centering orientation of Indigenous knowledge systems, critical epistemologies that ensure the survivance[1] (Vizenor, 1999) of Indigenous peoples, an embodied ethic and approach to knowledge and knowing, life and living. Indigenous peoples call out the living memory of the ways that U.S. schooling has stifled diversities of community-centered knowledge systems, epistemologies, and ways of knowing-being, much as U.S. practices of dominion have claimed, remapped, renamed, and attempted to replace Indigenous homelands, knowledges, languages, histories, memories, and relationships.

Indigenous peoples’ self-determining aspirations are rare within student and community experiences of U.S. education. Schooling in the context of Settler-Colonialism has undermined and delegitimized the diversity of Indigenous relationality embodied in living Indigenous languages, epistemologies, and ethics of collectivity, reciprocity, relationship, generosity, respect, responsibility, humility, and orality. Indigenous epistemologies are understood by the West as impeding the Settler-Colonial agenda of progress and ‘democracy,’ furthering its need for the cognitive, spiritual, epistemological replacement of Indigenous peoples’ relational pedagogies by framing individualism, competition, assimilation, and exceptionalism as the goals for successful ‘American’ students. Yet Indigenous peoples continue to renew and restore their own ways of knowing-being as critical, central, orienting pedagogies of ethical relationship from within their own cultural contexts.

U.S. education must become responsive to the self-determining aspirations and envisioning of Indigenous students and their communities. Indigenous peoples are not simply another ethnic group to be “celebrated” in multicultural presentations. By beginning to listen differently, engaging a “radical listening” (Winchell, Kress & Tobin, 2016) that pays attention differently, the U.S. system of education might come to understand that it is not the only, nor the oldest, way of educating here within the ancestral homelands of Indigenous peoples; Indigenous peoples have their own highly developed ways of knowing-being that are intimately connected to their lands, languages, and cultural contexts, relationships that remain more relevant than ever for their People.

Indigenous pedagogies, methodologies, and relational ethics could offer dominant U.S. schooling an education rich in the development and critical relevance of context, place, meaning, and intergenerational interaction and exchange, in what it means to live here on Turtle Island. Radical listening develops radical humility, engaging a transformative praxis of unsettling. Participating in this way, schooling would interrupt and refuse the overculture’s renaming and replacing of Indigenous lands, spaces, languages, epistemologies, knowledges, and relationships. By engaging, supporting, and creating space for Indigenous intergenerational knowledge relations that are the root of survivance for their Peoples, U.S. education might begin to transform its complicity in a genocidal Settler-Colonial project of replacement of Indigenous peoples. Enacting a different ethic, sustaining different priorities and practices, and remembering from a different place might ignite the transformative action required to shift the experiences of Indigenous students and communities—and holds the possibility for the transformation of U.S. schooling itself.

“We have the option to set our own courses with respect to realizing our dreams and aspirations, and therefore we ought to be considering developing resistance initiatives around that kind of philosophy, initiatives that are positive and proactive. We must reclaim our own lives in order to put our destinies in our own hands.”

—Graham Smith, Maori educator


Vizenor, G. R. (1999). Manifest manners: Narratives on postindian survivance. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press.

Winchell M., Kress T.M., & Tobin K. (2016). Teaching/Learning Radical Listening: Joe’s Legacy Among Three Generations of Practitioners. In M. Agnello & W. Reynolds (Eds.), Practicing Critical Pedagogy: Critical Studies of Education (pp. 99-112). Heidelberg: Springer, Cham.

Wolfe, P. (2016). Traces of history: Elementary structures of race. New York: Verso.

[1] Gerald Vizenor’s (1999) “survivance”: “an active sense of presence, the continuance of native stories” (p. vii)

Responses From Readers

Thanks to Timothy, Alayna, and Amanda, and to readers, for their contributions!

Please feel free to leave a comment with your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.

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