This post was written by a past Bellwether intern. Read more about our internship program here.
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.
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.”
The beauty of an assets-based approach lies in the space it gives educators to understand children as multi-dimensional individuals and acknowledge the complexity of students’ cultures. Within this framework, educators are empowered to (1) acknowledge the lasting impacts of historical trauma that Native people face, (2) act with the conviction that Native communities are full of assets to support student success, and (3) get to know their students as individuals with unique strengths and value.
If we’re serious about the work of educational equity, we must follow in the footsteps of our clients at NIEA and build classrooms that value the wisdom and strength within Native communities. This means administrators must literally open the doors to Native families by hiring more native teachers, creating Native liaison positions, and sponsoring community gatherings. Educators will also need resources and time to learn about Native history, practice using asset-based language, and implement culturally relevant practices in their classrooms. Finally, administrators should invest in culturally relevant materials to learn from a multitude of experiences and perspectives and avoid the negative consequences of Euro-centric curriculums.
Does a shift toward assets-based thinking actually matter? Jacob’s experience suggests it does. When his son entered 10th grade, he received a phone call from the new teacher and expected to hear a report of bad behavior and academic struggle — in his words, “more of the same.” Instead, he heard gratitude. This teacher told Jacob how thankful she was to have his son in her class and acknowledged the value his perspective brought to her and the other students.
Holding back tears, Jacob explained to me: “That was the first time an educator acknowledged [my son] for what he was worth. And as Native people, so many of us experience only hearing the negatives about our children, about the problems. We don’t hear about their value, and that’s so important.”
Laura Schaaf is former intern on Bellwether’s Policy & Evaluation team.