Young Native Americans Share School Culture Experiences with Secretary Duncan

During the session, students discussed the importance of school culture. (U.S. Department of Education)

During the session, students discussed the importance of school culture. (U.S. Department of Education)

While many students face challenges when it comes to growing up and pursuing academic success, Native American and Alaskan Native youths are more likely than most of their peers to experience poverty and trauma, and to drop out of high school. Their school environment has a significant role in their development.

This is just one of the reasons why ED recently invited 15 young Native Americans to attend a Student Voices Session with Secretary Duncan.

This session was also a capstone to ED’s first-ever School Environment Listening Tour, a nine-city tour in seven states designed to identify the impact of school environment on young Native Americans.

During the session here at ED, the students expressed their great need for cultural and personal support.

“When native students have a space for cultural continuity in an educational setting, they are tremendously more successful,” commented Laree, a Lakota and Oglala undergraduate student from Wisconsin.

Blue and Kele, siblings from Oklahoma, are members of the Cherokee Nation and of Osage and Choctaw descent. They stressed the significance of their participation in Operation Eagle, a cultural and community group for native youths. Despite the existence of programs like this, however, they highlighted the fact that education about their culture needs to extend beyond their native community.

Blue recalled from one community event that, “volunteers came in wearing headdresses and paint on their faces … one kid had a Halloween costume of a native American. … They need to teach the kids that not everyone has a headdress; you have to earn everything … I just think it would be better to have them learn.”

Autumn, a high school student from the Pokagan Band of Potawatomi Indians, described a similar experience. Her high school mascot is the chieftain – an offensive Native American caricature – and the derogatory term “wahoo” is used for the yearbook and school dances. While these harmful images had caused many of her native friends to lose interest in school or drop out, Autumn said that she couldn’t really be mad. “It’s not [non-native students’] fault – they’ve been programmed to think we are savages by the history they’re taught.” Autumn agreed that a more inclusive history should be taught to all students.

This Student Voices session was a capstone to ED’s first-ever School Environment Listening Tour, a nine-city tour in seven states designed to identify the impact of school environment on young Native Americans. (U.S. Department of Education)

This Student Voices session was a capstone to ED’s first-ever School Environment Listening Tour, a nine-city tour in seven states designed to identify the impact of school environment on young Native Americans. (U.S. Department of Education)

When Secretary Duncan asked the students about how to increase college access and make learning relevant for Native American and Alaskan Native youths, they opened up with recommendations that included cultural programs, tutors and career counselors, more accurate history curricula, and increased college affordability. There was consensus among the students that creating a supportive school culture should start with principals and teachers modeling culturally sensitive behaviors.

Referring to the need for recognition of Native culture within schools, Benton, of the Jicarilla Apache tribe, the youngest of the group at only six years old, concluded, “It matters, my tribe is important.”

This session was a part of the ongoing “Student Voices” series at the Department through which students engage with senior staff members to help develop recommendations on current and future education programs and policies.

Samuel Ryan is a Special Assistant and Youth Liaison in the Office of Communications and Outreach at the U.S. Department of Education.

3 Comments

  1. My children are Blue and Kele Haase from Oklahoma. I accompanied them along the way as they made this journey on behalf of themselves and their brothers and sisters. Our students across this country need to be constantly reminded that they are important and that they have the power to change these things that hold them back in this life. They need to know that we are all here, fighting this good fight for them. There is a movement starting, a resistance, it is being fueled by our youth. We must continue to fan this flame and bring it’s light and warmth to all of our youth, our students, nationwide. We have to let them know what is happening so that they can get involved. Take the Gen-I Challenge, send in testimonials from them, take them to the school board meetings, encourage them to participate in the movement. It will empower them. They must know that after all these years of being displaced, stereotyped, disregarded and ignored that the times, they are a changin’. It is their time to stand up, take action and take back their education and their futures. They are the ones who will carry out all of the visions of their elders and ancestors. Our youth are where it’s at. They need our guidance and our support. Take advantage of this time, it may be fleeting. Depending in the changes in the administration over the next few years, our voices may once again become back ground noise. We must fight for them and encourage them, NOW. The squeaky wheel gets the oil! Let your school districts, teachers, counselors, Tribal members, Tribal leaders, State leaders, friends and families know what is going down and encourage them take part in this growing movement. We must do this for our culture and our children.

  2. Being of Indian heritage (Mohawk) and a staff member in OESE, I personally see the key players at school as the teacher, guidance counselor and parent. My son was beaten, bullied as a middle schooler – I had to intervene, as he was withdrawing. By the start of high school, he was totally disfunctional, unable to get up for school, bodily disfunction, lying in bed all day. He was placed in special education. The county wanted to have him enrolled in a ‘special school’.
    He was diagnosed as schitzophrenic. I M grateful that we live in this area, with numerous resources – something that a kid on an Indian reservation out west doesn’t have.
    I enrolled son Jason in an NIH research trial – he stayed 10 months. His diagnosis is schitzo-affective and he has correct medications to control it. He is now a PhD candidate for mathematics at GW University.
    The one persn left out in this is the guidance counselor. They are not adequately trained, in my opinion. Thank you.

  3. I attended this listening session with 2 students. Their testimonies are valid and heartbreaking and I thank the DOE staff for meeting with them. However, those of us that are working as leaders within the school systems for our First Nations students have far more information regarding the civil rights violations bestowed upon our programs and the blatant disregard for our children and families when it comes to programming. Within Wisconsin there is a law, ACT 31, that the majority of districts are non-compliant with. I believe there needs to be a countrywide effort to include the real history and include all of our First Nations children in the classroom. The disparities that exist because of the historical trauma endured tie directly to the overall tragic statistics of our First Nations children. Research is showing that the mascot issue is indeed affecting the mental health of our First Nations students and that includes suicide, not feeling like they belong, alcohol and drug abuse etc…

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