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With Larry Ferlazzo

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Professional Development Opinion

Response: Meeting the Needs of Native American Students

By Larry Ferlazzo — April 21, 2019 21 min read
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(This is Part One in a three-part series)

The new question-of-the-week is:

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

Native American students—both their gifts and the challenges they might face—are often overlooked in our public school system.

This series will consider what those challenges might be and what might be ways educators and schools can more adequately respond to them. Contributors will also be discussing how we can look at Native American students through the lens of their assets and not a deficit-based approach.

Today’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.

You might also be interested in Resources On Challenges Native Americans Face In Schools.

Response From Mandy Smoker Broaddus

Mandy Smoker Broaddus is a member of the Fort Peck Assiniboine and Sioux tribes in Montana. She is a practice expert in Indian education for Education Northwest. She was formerly the director of Indian education for the state of Montana for nearly a decade:

American Indian students are just like any other young people. They have dreams and aspirations. They cherish their families, friends, and loved ones. They want to succeed in school and beyond.

However, they differ from other students in a critical way: their membership as citizens or descendants in 573 sovereign tribal nations. This political and cultural reality makes them unique, as do the resiliency and determination demonstrated for several generations by their tribes and families.

Our children are the reason why, in the face of extreme adversity, our ancestors fought and endured to keep our people, ways of life, value systems, and languages alive. And even after all of that, we live in a new era in which we face pervasive stereotypes, biases, misconceptions, omissions, and even lies about our history and identity—in textbooks, film, literature, music, politics, and the general consciousness of everyday America.

In light of this, our children remain our greatest hope of not just survival but the ability to thrive again.

The fact that, all too often, the educational needs of American Indian students are not met does not lie in their inability to succeed but in a system that fails to value their strengths, who they are, and where they come from.

When this occurs, research shows that the resulting neurological response directly impacts the ability to learn, specifically related to “deep culture” (Hammond, 2015).[1] This level of culture entails our collective knowledge and ways of knowing. According to Hammond, it is “the tacit knowledge and unconscious assumptions that govern our worldview. ... Challenges to cultural values at this level produce culture shock or trigger the brain’s fight or flight response.”

Students are not equipped with the necessary tools to address this internal conflict—they can feel confused, angry, and/or displaced. Worse, they can adopt the idea that their original culture is of little to no value and should be left behind and forgotten.

Considering all the deliberate efforts to destroy our ways of life and our cultural/linguistic identities, as well as the ongoing failure of mainstream education to meet the needs and strengths of American Indian students, accepting and respecting what remains of our cultural heritage and distinctiveness is paramount.

So, what can we do to build and rebuild the necessary structures and policies, teaching approaches, relationships, and overall contexts for American Indian students to find the success they deserve?

Culturally responsive teaching should be a foundational component of schools

Cultural awareness and responsiveness must be an ongoing and deliberate effort. And it must take root across the school spectrum—curriculum, pedagogy, engagement with students and their families, and overall policies and practices (for example, using restorative justice instead of mainstream discipline methods that too often push out students of color).

Adopt strength-based approaches and build on the assets and resiliency of students, community members, and tribes

This recognition is important to our own journeys of healing and development. We can and will rebuild from within. This process can be helped along the way when those around us stop doing further damage to our individual and collective psyche, especially in education.

Listen to young people

Build up and sustain the perspectives of students, then incorporate their ideas into all aspects of school life—climate, curriculum, policies, and even school improvement. This is also an important step in relationship and trust building.

Make sure curricula are based on the right information

In Montana, Oregon, Washington, New Mexico, South Dakota, and elsewhere, statewide efforts geared toward cultural inclusion and responsiveness are requiring schools to incorporate accurate and authentic information into teaching strategies and content. This is vital to both American Indian and non-Indian students. For the latter, learning the correct narrative of their tribal neighbors will allow all children to engage and operate with true understanding and authenticity.

Support tribal-language development

Whether they take the form of immersion programs, dual-language programs, or a combination, these efforts are essential to (re)connecting our American Indian youths to the full scope of their identity.

Adjust teaching to ensure and accommodate extra time for mastery of content

This is especially important in the early grades, when literacy in English is crucial. We know American Indian students have high rates of chronic absenteeism due to various reasons beyond their control, which results in less time to learn and demonstrate a thorough understanding of content. This may mean providing students with extra class time, an extended school year, after-school and summer school opportunities, and/or interventions that are culturally responsive and appropriate.

Prioritize social and emotional supports that are ongoing and based on what works for American Indian youth development, including cultural insights and connections

Grounding youths in who they are and where they come from can be a proactive approach to building up our young people. It can also be an important intervention that can bring new perspectives and centering for youths who are facing challenges.

Ultimately, this all may mean stepping aside; as we grow our own educators and administrators, let us take over systems and build new models that serve our children. The involvement of tribes in this work is essential.

American Indian children are a part of our collective memory and future—we know them, understand them, and believe in them. Educating them is our responsibility. Chances are, when this happens (that is, when old knowledge combines with new), we might just develop something that all education systems in the U.S. can benefit from.

[1] https://us.corwin.com/en-us/nam/culturally-responsive-teaching-and-the-brain/book241754

Response From Gregg Castro

Gregg Castro [t’rowt’raahl Salinan/rumsien Ohlone] has worked to preserve his cultural heritage for a quarter of a century as a writer and activist. Gregg is the Society for California Archaeology’s Native American Programs Committee chair. He is an adviser with the California Indian Conference and California Indian History Curriculum Coalition:

Beyond the challenges of the education system that exist for all students, People of Color are especially pressured by additional factors. For Native American students, one that may be unique to them is that they often have a different and more advanced knowledge of their own history, not only surpassing their peers but also their own teachers. That is because the majority of teachers have been given the “classic” textbook version of U.S. history.

In addition, the material available to most teachers follows that “classic” knowledge base that is often cleansed of the unpleasantries and sometimes horrors of our country’s past. As recently seen with reaction to the publishing of the book American Genocide by UCLA history professor Benjamin Madley, there is still a great deal of emotional context to the discussion of the history between the Original Peoples of the Americas and the government and society of the newcomer Europeans that came and colonized what was for them a “new world.” For the Native First People of this continent, it was their homelands that they were given the sacred obligation to care for since the dawn of time. As modern science has so far discerned, we are minimally talking about an intimate relationship between land and people that has existed in many places for 15,000 or more years. Yet in a mind-boggling short time (about five centuries or less), that relationship has been severely disrupted with the express intention by the newcomer Europeans to sever it. That was most often done by the attempt to eradicate native communities completely.

This knowledge is often passed down through native families and communities, because history as usually taught in schools does not reflect these facts. In order to preserve and protect the legacy of their ancestors, native communities have maintained this knowledge, often at great cost to themselves—emotionally, spiritually, and sometimes physically, when general society strongly objects to this truth.

So a simple acknowledgement that native peoples have been subject to a long history in the U.S. of prejudice in various forms would be a deeply felt validation of their existence. They would no longer have the struggle to accept other facets of the education system when the essential part of their existence is no longer questioned nor overlooked. Most educators that I have worked with agree, when a student sees themselves as valued and acknowledged members of the student body, their connection to it, participation in it, and their retention of knowledge from it is vastly fortified.

These lessons are often fraught with emotional issues for the education community—but I think that rather than it be out of concern for their students, my experience is that their own reactions, feelings, and thoughts are the higher barrier. Yet, such a discussion of the real history of the United States, up to and including the reality of government- and public-sponsored genocide of indigenous people, can be done with care, thoughtfulness, and concern for all students that hear it. We must remember, it is not only the non-native students and their reactions to the concept of genocide that need be of concern. It is also the discussion of deeply felt emotions and memories of native students that need be taken into account. Native communities are not trying to traumatize anyone with this discussion of “truth in history,” especially their own young people. Yet, avoiding the topic, as has been happening for decades in our educational system, is not the answer. The truth comes out on its’ own, but when it does, there is no guidance, discussion, validation, or insight from mentors that can put it into context in a way that enlightens and illuminates the topic. Such is the intent of education in general, is it not?

Bringing this out into the open and into balance has been a continuing struggle, in which many native people have been engaged for decades with little progress. We in the native communities have seen the result of such dismissal of our lived experience, the effects of which not only reverberate to today but also continue in the present time because the foundations of society, government, law, and business processes are still infused with that prejudice that was born of colonization long ago. In order to have a purposeful yet painfully necessary public discourse on this part of American history, we must first give people, particularly our students, the fundamental facts and overarching knowledge, enough to be able to have intelligent and effective discussions. That is not the place we are at now; the general public is woefully ignorant—in some cases, purposefully—of the truth of their own country and how it was blatantly attempting to rid itself of the “burden” of the original people, up to and including the present day. Modern events, such as the Standing Rock protection efforts, could not be kept hidden and so brought to the surface of public awareness the current state of the relationship between the United States (both government, business, and ordinary citizenry) and the Indigenous communities that continue to exist and maintain their heritages with abundant courage and strength.

Hiding, ignoring, and avoiding history will not work forever, as we are seeing today. The Native community is looking to allies and truth seekers in the education system to address this issue with the many tools that already exist, the facts of history that are already out in the public purview, and in collaboration with the native communities in each area that wish to acknowledge the original people that have been taking care for thousands of years, the homelands that we all now live on.

Response From Jennifer Jilot

Jennifer Jilot teaches English and is a literacy coach for Arlee High School on the Flathead Indian reservation in Montana. Throughout her 14 years of teaching, she has worked with kids ranging from 1st through 12th grade, as well as pre-education and graduate-level students at the University of Montana. Jennifer has a bachelor of science degree in elementary education and a master’s of education degree in curriculum and instruction/literacy education leading to her elementary, secondary English, and K-12 reading endorsements:

The Challenges We Face: Native American Youths in Public Schools

When asked about the biggest challenges facing American Indian students, a multitude of images and emotions flow through my mind. As an American Indian woman, I initially respond with defensiveness. Why, when American society wants to acknowledge Native American communities, does the conversation usually turn toward the deficits? In fact, Native Americans strive to hold fast to their cultural identities. Traditional ceremonies, food sovereignty, and linguistic movements help teach Native children critical knowledge and practices that emphasize and celebrate the uniqueness of Indigenous people. Nevertheless, the fact remains that Native people face distinct challenges resulting from centuries of genocidal trauma.


Identity remains the predominant challenge faced by many Native American people. An individual’s identity emerges from connection with culture, family, community, and history. For Native American people, language, ceremonies, and stories about the past translate into lessons for the present and future—containing the blueprint for one’s identity. Identity stands as the necessary foundation by which humanity thrives. Without it, one feels out of place and deprived of a clear direction for the future. Through education, the United States has attempted, with considerable success, to erase much of its Indigenous character.

Like any child, I spent my teen years searching for who I was, for an identity that connected me to my family and ancestors. Forced acculturation, most recently through American Indian boarding schools, hindered my ability to make a clear connection to my people’s history and culture. Members of my family either didn’t know or, due to the pain caused by racism and persecution, refused to share their knowledge of my Chippewa-Cree culture and history.

The public schools I attended provided little support because, in an overwhelmingly large amount of social studies and English curriculum, Native American people disappear once Christopher Columbus arrives in the Western hemisphere. I remember the excitement I felt when my social studies teachers began their units on Native Americans before Columbus’ arrival. We were taught about tipis, buffalo, hunters and gatherers, feathers, and bows and arrows. As I grew older, I noticed that our studies of Native Americans reinforced stereotypical images while ending once the settlers reached this land, and I wondered why. The curriculum implied that Native Americans had disappeared, but I knew better. How could they have disappeared when I am still here? Visiting my home reservation, the Rocky Boy reservation in north-central Montana, I knew that my people continued to live, to struggle, and thrive, all at the same time. So, why would my school in a Denver suburb misrepresent Native Americans in the curriculum they taught me?

In high school, I enrolled in an honors U.S. history course. Sitting in class one day, I removed the U.S. history textbook used for the lower-level class from the bookshelf next to me. On the first page, the authors told readers that Native Americans did not know how to cultivate the land, and that European settlers had a right to the land that Native Americans were wasting. Of course, I’m paraphrasing a memory from over 20 years ago, but the hurt and anger I felt as a result of what I read that day continues to have an impact on my life.

As a Chippewa girl, I desperately wanted to know about my people and Native American people in general. I needed validation and to belong somewhere. I was too dark skinned to fit in with my fellow Caucasian students. I always felt out of place; different somehow from them. They always wanted to know, “What are you?” as though I was inherently different, someone from outside their mainstream circle. Most people of any race assumed I was Hispanic and, for a while, I would blend into and identify with that racial group. When I informed them of my Native American identity, regardless of the race of the person asking, I was teased. They often war-whooped and did a silly dance trying to imitate the only perceptions they had of Native Americans. Sometimes, I was asked where my feathers and tipi were. The media and film perpetuate stereotypes, and without any representation in school curriculum, how were my peers to know any better? Ultimately, the lack of validation and voice of Native Americans throughout the United States continues to be a stubborn reality, leaving today’s Native American youths craving the same validation and connection I did as a young girl.

Beyond the School Walls

A variety of societal challenges impede Native American student success in schools. Romantic and historical representations of Native Americans through mascots, film, grocery products, and fashion continue to exploit them as a people of the past. The Native American mascot, whether identified as warrior, chief, Indian, or even Seminole, illustrates Native Americans wearing feathers of some sort and war paint, among other stereotypical historical markers. Furthermore, popular children’s films such as “Pocahontas” not only present Native Americans as romantic and childlike, but also lie to the public about a very real person in American history. Native American images portrayed on products such as cigarette packages and Land O’ Lakes butter boxes represent the noble savage that smokes a peace pipe and a sexualized female whose attire is completely inaccurate. According to the American Psychological Association (2005), these images have proven to be detrimental to a Native American child’s identity, self-esteem, and self-efficacy.

At home, trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder resulting from historical trauma and the trauma of poverty, abuse, and substance abuse immediately inflict a child’s brain preventing academic information from entering short- or long-term memory (Sporleder & Forbes, 2016). Native American boarding schools, empowered by Richard Pratt’s idea of “kill the Indian, save the man,” was the United States government’s last attempt at genocide against Native Americans. The children stolen from their families were forced to learn and speak English, practice Christianity, and perform various jobs. During their stay in boarding schools, teachers and administrators who taught at the schools physically, sexually, and emotionally abused Native American children. School personnel essentially provided the role models for the parents that these children would later become, thereby perpetuating the historical trauma Native American children continue experiencing, today. Through the generations since boarding schools, Native American people maintain distrust of schools. The lack of value they often hold for education when raising their children reflects their negative experiences.

Within School Boundaries

It is no secret that public school curriculum highly reflects Euro-centric material. The lack of diversification in the curriculum perpetuates a marginalized society. The absence of instruction and discussion of various tribal interactions with European immigrants beyond Christopher Columbus throughout U.S. history reflected in the textbooks used in schools preserves the near invisibility of Native Americans. Not only do textbooks imply to students that Native Americans no longer exist, but what little is taught falsifies the realities of the genocide that took place. Likewise, the silencing of Native Americans leaves no room for exploration of the contemporary issues Native Americans continue to face today as a result of genocide. The omission of Native American perspectives and experiences in public school curriculum negatively impacts all students and society as a whole.

Native American students today, much like myself during the latter part of the 20th century, grapple with identity issues. Students spend roughly eight hours a day, four or five days a week in school. When the curriculum and school environment contradicts or limits their cultural and historical identities, students feel insignificant and become less likely to engage in coursework. Their relationships with teachers and grades suffer. Furthermore, non-Native American students who remain ignorant of tribal cultures and histories preserve the notion that Native Americans no longer exist or only live on reservations, thereby enabling the marginality of Native people. Everyone benefits when multiple perspectives and world views co-exist in the curriculum and school environment. It teaches empathy, acceptance, and community within a multicultural society. Without it, society remains Euro-centric and one-dimensional, leaving Native Americans and other people of color in the margins of American culture.


Native American students face many challenges as they navigate through the public school system. Inevitably, as with all students, home and community issues impact their learning and ultimately rewire their brains. Additionally, invisibility in school curricula, widespread stereotypical images in the mass media, and caricatures displayed by corporate America and schools devalue Native Americans. Finally, the absence of deep analysis of the story that has made America the place that exists today removes Native American voices from the narrative, leaving our students, both Native American and non-Native, ignorant of the identity of our country. Native American students continue to live in a cycle of marginalization, while non-Native Americans, particularly Caucasians or Euro-Americans continue down a path of power that leaves Native Americans disenfranchised.

Fortunately, resiliency remains a strength among Native American people. Our cultures and languages adapted to the Euro-American cultures that took our land and diminished our populations. Today, some Native American tribes manage private schools that teach their children their tribal culture and language. Some proficiently own and operate large and small businesses that benefit the tribe. Many manage natural resources in a way that protects the environment and economically supports the tribe. Several states have passed laws that require or encourage public schools to teach Native American content in all subject areas. Montana specifically has “Indian Education for All” in the state constitution as a result of young Native American high school students who stood up to the state legislature. Native American music, dance, art, ceremonies, and stories continue to grace the lives of the people who originated on this land. Yes, we face challenges, but we also persevere.

Thanks to Mandy, Gregg, and Jennifer for their contributions!

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