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Professional Development Opinion

Response: ‘Something Must Change’ to Address Challenges Facing Native American Youths

By Larry Ferlazzo — April 22, 2019 14 min read
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(This is Part Two in a three-part series. You can see Part One 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.

Today’s contributors are Dr. Susan C. Faircloth, Kelly Sassi, and Jennifer Borgioli.

Response From Dr. Susan C. Faircloth

Dr. Susan C. Faircloth (an enrolled member of the Coharie Tribe of North Carolina) is professor and director of the School of Education at Colorado State University. Dr. Faircloth’s research interests include: Indigenous education, the education of culturally and linguistically diverse students with special educational needs, and the moral and ethical dimensions of school leadership. She has published widely in such journals as Educational Administration Quarterly, Harvard Educational Review, The Journal of Special Education Leadership, International Studies in Educational Administration, Values and Ethics in Educational Administration, Tribal College Journal of American Indian Higher Education, Rural Special Education Quarterly, and Journal of Disability Policy Studies:

Last night, I asked this question to my 9-year old daughter. Her response, “Mom, it’s not my place to answer.” Talk about being put in my place! Her words reminded me that it’s important to acknowledge that I’m speaking from the perspective of an American Indian adult, parent, educator, and researcher—not as an American Indian youth. If we really want to know what challenges American Indian youths are facing and how best to address these challenges, we must begin by talking with these youths. They navigate these challenges each and every day—some more successfully than others. Having said this, my top 10 list of challenges includes the following:

  1. Invisibility
  2. Erasure
  3. Misperceptions and stereotypes
  4. Racism
  5. Failure of educators to recognize and draw on American Indian students’ gifts and talents
  6. Lack of American Indian teachers and school leaders
  7. Poverty
  8. Under-resourced schools
  9. Culturally irrelevant and unresponsive teaching and learning practices
  10. Untapped potential resulting in high dropout, high pushout rates, and low graduation rates

What can we do?

We, as educators, must continually ask ourselves the following questions:

  1. Are we really seeing and honoring American Indian youths, their cultures, their languages, their families, their communities, their tribal nations?

  2. Are we addressing the intentional and unintentional erasure of American Indian peoples, communities, and tribes from our textbooks, library books, and other resources?

  3. Are we combating misperceptions and stereotypes of American Indian peoples that reinforce the notion that we are peoples of the past rather than a vibrant, diverse, and resilient part of the world today?

  4. Are we preparing students to fight back against increasingly racist acts evidenced across the nation each and every day? Are we complicit in the continued use of racist mascots, symbols, and imagery in schools?

  5. Are we looking for and seeing American Indian students’ gifts and talents, not just their struggles?

  6. Are we proactively working to recruit and retain American Indian teachers and creating pipelines for them to enter official leadership roles within our schools?

  7. Are we combating poverty and its effects on American Indian students, their families, and their communities? Are we acknowledging that students cannot truly learn academic knowledge and skills until their hearts and bellies are fed and full?

  8. Are we pushing back against the structures that enable and allow American Indian students to have lesser facilities and resources than their non-Native peers who live in higher-income zip codes or locales?

  9. Are we working to unpack and unlearn our own teaching practices that fail to recognize, honor, and incorporate Indigenous ways of knowing, doing, learning, valuing, thinking, and being? Are we open to teaching from perspectives of those who have been colonized rather than from the perspective(s) of the colonizer(s)?

  10. Are we acknowledging our own role(s) in contributing to the graduation/dropout/pushout crisis among many of our American Indian tribes and communities? Are we willing to acknowledge that American Indian students have great talents and strengths and a desire to learn and grow, but academic spaces are too often not structured in a manner that taps into these talents and strengths and that leaves these students wanting more?

Again, I write these words not as an American Indian youth but as a middle-aged American Indian woman, educator, researcher, and most importantly, the mother of a young American Indian child—the only American Indian child in her school—a child who is struggling to find her place, to exercise her voice and agency, and to be truly seen as the beautiful, intelligent, wise, sassy, resilient, talkative, fidgety, wonderful child she is. Each day I send her to school with the hope that her school will see and value her and the fear that they will not. Each night, I tuck her into bed and remind her of how special she is, how resilient our people are, and how much I love and care for her and all of our beautiful little ones.

As I stroke her hair and say these words to her, I am reminded that less than 60 years ago, my own American Indian parents attended a segregated school for American Indians only, and that until the 1940s, American Indian students in my own home community of North Carolina could not attend school beyond the 8th grade without being “boarded out” to another family or identifying as white or black so that they could attend segregated schools for white and black students. One generation later, I attended integrated schools but only had one paraprofessional who identified as American Indian. Today, I teach in colleges and universities, where I am typically the only American Indian female in a college or school of education, and few, if any of our teacher education or principal-preparation candidates are American Indians. Have we made progress? Yes. Have we progressed enough? No!

American Indians are unique in that we are the only group within this nation for which the federal government has an obligation to provide educational services, yet we are among those with the lowest rates of educational achievement and attainment in this nation. Something must change. Our children and youths are our futures. If our schools do not listen to our children and begin to meet them where they are, our tribal nations will continue to be at risk.

Response From Kelly Sassi

Kelly Sassi bio: Kelly Sassi is an associate professor with a joint appointment in English and education at North Dakota State University. She also serves as director of the Red River Valley Writing Project. Her most current publication is titledBending the Arc of Writing Assessment Toward Social Justice: Enacting Culturally Responsive Professional Development at Standing Rock” in Writing Assessment, Social Justice and Advancement of Opportunity edited by Poe, Inoue, and Elliott (2018):

With over 500 Indigenous groups in North America, each with its unique language, culture, and traditions, one challenge Native American students face is the stereotyping that occurs when labeled with the broad category of “Native Americans.” The history, culture, and needs of the Athabaskan students I taught in Alaska in the ‘90s were very different from those of the Ojibwe students I worked with in North Dakota this year.

However, there are larger historical forces that all teachers should be aware of when working with Native American students. The violence of our country’s history of settler colonization and forced assimilation laws and policies, such as sending children to boarding schools, often far from home, where their language and culture were beaten out of them, has created a condition of historical and intergenerational trauma that continues to impact teaching and learning today. Since this history has been suppressed, it takes an active effort on the part of us educators to learn about it and think through how that knowledge affects our pedagogical approaches. It’s important to do that work in partnership with Native American people, preferably those in the community one works in, in order to support what Scott Lyons defines as “rhetorical sovereignty.” Writing can be an important tool of decolonization, as well as healing and self-expression.

I used to think that I could better help Native American students meet their challenges by doing things like taking classes in Native American Literature so that I would know which books to teach; attending an anti-racist summer institute so I could unpack my invisible knapsack of privilege; studying and enacting culturally relevant, responsive, and sustaining pedagogies; and listening to the advice of elders. All of these things have been helpful, but after two decades of such efforts, I realize the work does not end with the class, institute, book, or conversation but is an ongoing effort that requires true lifelong learning.

Some practical suggestions I’ve gleaned from Native teachers, students, and community members is to take time to get to know people before jumping to “the work,” hold high expectations, show respect for the culture of the students you are working with, listen with humility, avoid retraumatization, and have a sense of humor. Finally, persevere. Native American students who have found academic success seem to have one story in common—a story of a teacher or other adult in their lives who did not give up on them, who encouraged them at a crucial moment.

Some model teaching materials to look at are those on the Oyate website, which mainly reviews books; the Alaska Native Knowledge Network; and Montana’s Indian Education for All Program. What is valuable about the teaching materials on the Alaska and Montana sites is that they were collaboratively created with the people of the region and put Native knowledge and values at the center of their resources. They are aligned with the cultural standards that were collaboratively created in each state. It is important to locate and study those standards for your own setting. If your state does not have its own standards, encourage your state department of education to partner with all of the Native people in its state to create them. There is much work to be done to remove the barriers to success that Native American students face—work that needs to be done within the classroom but also outside of the classroom.

Response From Jennifer Borgioli

Jennifer Borgioli is the host of the podcast Ed History 101 where she explores the role of institutional sexism and white supremacy in education history. She is also a senior consultant at Learner-Centered Initiatives, Ltd., where she supports teachers, schools, and districts with designing assessments that capture evidence of student learning in ways that are meaningful for students and teachers:

When it comes to identifying challenges facing members of historically marginalized groups, listening to members of that community is an essential step to avoid replicating past mistakes and tragedies. The white educators who opened the Indian Boarding Schools in the mid 1800s felt confident they knew what to do. That confidence, though, meant they separated generations of young people from their families, facilitated the destruction of language and culture, and by action or inaction, caused the deaths of dozens of children. While the days of Indian Boarding schools are behind us, there is a challenge everyone in education, especially white educators in mostly white schools, can address: mascots.

  • In a recent tweet thread, Twitter user @mariahgladstone, a Native educator and creator of IndigiKitchen, laid out the harm done to Native people, especially children, by mascots using Native imagery or names.

  • One of the first episodes of

    All My Relations with Matika Wilbur and Dr. Adrienne Keene featured Dr. Stephanie Fryberg, researcher on the impact of mascots of Native children, and Amanda Blackhorse, founder of NoMoreNativeMascots.org. They discussed the history of activism against mascots and the power of education in changing people’s minds.

  • That theme is echoed in Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz and Dina Gilio-Whitaker’s new book All the Real Indians Died Off: And 20 Other Myths about Native Americans. In the chapter on the myth “Sports Mascots Honor Native Americans,” the authors review the various ways people claim to “honor” Native people; from Chief Wahoo to feathered headdresses at Coachella. They identify the name of the Washington NFL franchise as the “Red*skins” and explain why its name is so damaging and offensive.

According to the Native American Mascot Database, hundreds of high schools, colleges, and teams currently have Native tribal names, imaginary, or Native-related terms as a mascot. The database also tracks districts that have changed their mascot due to pressure from their community or a realization of the problem these mascots pose. In addition, they include teams that have developed mascots in conjunction with local Indigenous communities. In most cases, these teams’ websites address that history and the school’s relationship with the tribe or nation. As a resident of western New York, I live in a district that changed the name and about 30 miles from one developed with the local Native community.

In my district, the call to change the mascot, the same as the Washington NFL franchise, had been ongoing for decades before the school board and superintendent unilaterally changed the name. Although they identified a variety of reasons for the change, one contributing factor was white children wearing red face paint at lacrosse matches (a sport originally played by eastern Woodland tribes, including the Seneca Nation members). There were multiple reports of white students from the district chanting the name of the mascot at other teams, including at Indigenous children. The new mascot was designed with and by students, and complaints have since died down in the three years since the change, even though a few cars in the parent pickup line have bumper stickers proclaiming alliance to the old mascot.

The nature of mascots is such they both saturate the school experience and become background noise. If your district has a Native-related mascot, the work to address this challenge can begin immediately. Consider researching the mascot’s history and reach out to local tribes or nations if you suspect there’s a connection. If you want to lead a change movement, there are a great deal of resources available including APA’s statement, and the NCAI mascot initiative provides a number of resources. Students can even lead the change process, as they recently did in Cedar Falls. Finally, districts looking to change their mascot can connect with those who did and learn from their experiences. The evidence is overwhelming that Native mascots cause harm, perpetuate stereotypes, and mislead non-Native students about the diverse, complex lived experiences of Native Americans. It’s difficult to change systems to better serve historically marginalized groups but not impossible, and changing mascots is a manageable, meaningful place to start.

Thanks to Susan, Kelly, and Jennifer for their contributions!

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