Tag Archives: National Indian Education Association (NIEA)

Media: “Culture-based education — a path to healing for Native youth?” in The Hechinger Report

Today, I have an op-ed at The Hechinger Report about the benefits of culture-based education, for Native youth and all students. The piece was inspired by work our evaluation team did with The National Indian Education Association at Riverside Indian School, the nation’s oldest federally operated American Indian Boarding School.

An excerpt from my op-ed:

Culture-based education provides a path to healing and responsible citizenship for all of us. It helps students become aware of and comfortable with other belief and value systems. It furthers the goals of democracy and leads students of all ethnicities and races to think more deeply about their own cultural identities while also broadening their understanding of the experiences and perspectives of others.

Finally, the fruits of culture-based education can help us understand this country’s moral debts and how to pay them. Native Americans have for too long lived in a country controlled by men who, for nearly 300 years, have consistently “elevated armed robbery to a governing principle.” Through forced removal, boarding schools and relocation, our government stole and erased Native Americans’ languages and cultural knowledge. An investment in recovering, restoring and revitalizing lost and stolen indigenous cultural knowledge could guide us in understanding this country’s bloody history and place us on a path toward reconciliation and equity.

Read the rest of my piece at The Hechinger Report, and read more of my writing about Native education here.

The Power of Asset-Based Thinking for Native Students

During a phone call with our partners at the National Indian Education Association (NIEA), I used the word “impoverished” to describe some Native communities. I was politely corrected by Jacob Tsotigh, a citizen of the Kiowa Tribe and tribal education specialist at NIEA. Jacob explained that the word “impoverished” suggests Native communities are devoid of resources, and that using this word paints an untrue and incomplete picture of the complexity and value of Native culture.

He explained that while there is some level of poverty that exists for Native students broadly, characterizing Native students as simply impoverished misses the mark and diminishes Native cultural strengths. In a later conversation, Jacob told me:

Our Native people are not consumers, we’re not middle class, we don’t aspire to the American dream necessarily. We have a different set of values that permeate within our community. The essential value is that we are a collective. We believe that what we do as Tribal Nations reflects on the wellbeing of our families and communities — so if we don’t have the things that you do, we don’t feel ourselves as less than or deprived of. It’s not who we are.

2018 NIEA convention attendees via NIEA’s Flickr account

Jacob’s comment made me think more about why deeply understanding and respecting communities matters. In this situation, characterizing Native people only by their economic situation ignored the value that Native students bring to the classroom. This focus on deficits rather than strengths, a practice sometimes referred to as deficits-based thinking, is a common pitfall in many schools. This mindset leads educators see Native identity as a marker for failure, which puts students at an extreme disadvantage by making them less likely to garner high expectations from teachers. Additionally, given the fact that Native students encompass only 1% of the total population of public school-aged children, a focus on deficits can further isolate a group of students already dealing with invisibility.

Valuing Native students and their contributions requires a shift towards assets-based thinking, which encourages educators to understand and enrich the strengths of Native students to support their educational journeys. This requires getting to know Native students, and then working to share and amplify individual and cultural values, experiences, and perspectives — work that can improve cognitive processing in students.

Simultaneously, this approach creates an environment of mutual respect and reciprocal learning, where educators learn from the Native communities they serve and use this information to improve their classrooms for all students. For example, research has long supported the idea that Native students benefit from holistic and collaborative learning — a practice present in many Native cultures. This whole-child approach to education — one that holds health and wellbeing at the same level it does academics — is now taking off in schools around the country, proving we all have much to learn from our Native peers.

To be clear, educators shouldn’t ignore the challenges Native people face. NIEA education specialist Kurrinn Abrams, member of the Seneca Nation of Indians, explains that it is necessary to find a balance between addressing challenges and celebrating strengths: “Acknowledge the shared history and pain of Native people, but don’t use it to identify them.”

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