From Washington, D.C. to the Reservation: Showing Love for Native Students

Santa Fe Indian School graduation is a celebration of tradition and family. (Photo courtesy: Clyde Mueller/The New Mexican)

Santa Fe Indian School graduation is a celebration of tradition and family. (Photo courtesy: Clyde Mueller/The New Mexican)

I grew up listening to my father sing traditional Acoma songs as we would drive to the mountains; I didn’t understand why until I became old enough to learn that we were going to pray. It took even longer to understand why we pray — and a couple more years to understand that we pray in the following sequence for: the land, the rain, the animals, the world, the country, the Acoma community, our families and finally for ourselves.

SFIS 1938

Santa Fe Indian School in 1938. (Photo courtesy The Ernest Knee Photographic Trust)

I continued to learn these types of skills along with a western education when I entered the doors of Santa Fe Indian School (SFIS) for my high school career. SFIS is an example of how Native American education has taken a 180-degree turnaround. The Indian Boarding School era was a period in American history that saw white people attempting to assimilate native students into U.S. western society with the following framework in mind, “Kill the Indian, save the man.” It began with Carlisle Indian School and continued into the 1850’s with the start of SFIS.

In 2001, the All Pueblo Indian Council (AIPC), fearful of losing more of the Pueblo Indian languages and cultures, took action to gain ownership over SFIS. Since then, SFIS has evolved into an incredible institution for over 700 middle and high school Pueblo Indian, Navajo and Mescalero Apache students. SFIS has created many opportunities for students to thrive in middle school, high school and postsecondary education. Now it stands as an alma mater to a dozen Gates Millennium scholars within the last three years, many Ivy League students and a high number of future Indian Country leaders. These high success rates are strongly related to how SFIS integrates traditional and cultural philosophy in their school conduct and curriculums.

Pupils at Carlisle Indian Industrial School, Pennsylvania (c. 1900)

Pupils at Carlisle Indian Industrial School, Pennsylvania, ca. 1900 (Photo courtesy Frontier Forts)

It was an affirmation of this success when First Lady Michelle Obama agreed to give the commencement address for the SFIS class of 2016 graduation, which occurred on Thursday, May 26, 2016.The First Lady’s visit to SFIS had many Native students and both Native and non-Native educators excited and feeling extremely accomplished. The visit also included many interested in the federal government’s efforts to promote the success of educational outcomes for Native students.

Additionally, Secretary King visited two schools on the Pine Ridge reservation on May 12th, 2016 and attended the fourth Pine Ridge Educator Gathering hosted by the White House Initiative on American Indian and Alaska Native Education (WHIAIANE) and other federal agencies.

Both of these visits resonated strongly with students like me.

Having both the First Lady and Secretary of Education visit Native institutions and schools showed love for students – like me – who are growing up learning how to balance two very complex languages such as English and Keresan (the language spoken by Acoma Pueblo).

Their visits mean that there is appreciation for how hardworking Native students are and how difficult attaining a western education can be. A great example of this is the word ‘eyaani’. This Keresan word powerfully relates to the concept of “essence in life” in moments of prayer in the Keresan language – and it doesn’t have a concrete English translation. Native students like me often reflect on how words like this can’t be translated into English, but are incredibly powerful and important to our language and culture.

These visits represent love to the students who grew up on the reservation and learned traditional values. They showed love for students who attend pre-school in mobile homes and have dreams of attending one of the country’s most prestigious institutions. These visits showed love for students who grew up learning the sequence of items and people in a prayer from their fathers while learning algebra.

These visits meant love for me.

Chasity Salvador is an intern with the White House Initiative on American Indian and Alaska Native Education. She is currently a junior at Stanford University.

1 Comment

  1. I am currently working as a Vice Principal in the Sacramento, CA area where most do not think of having a high number of Native American’s in our schools. However, 1.5% of the population in Sacramento County is Native American. My school has a few students, one who is graduating this year. Each year the admin team visits all senior level classes to go through end of the year expectations, one of them being graduation. One of the requirements is to keep all caps and gowns clean of decorations–and that cultural requirements (beads. leis, feathers) need to be worn under the graduation gown. This year our one Native American graduating student is interested in wearing a feather in her cap. After explaining our policy, her dad, the student, and the admin team came up with the compromise of a feather on a necklace under the gown or the feather on a bracelet where it would be outside the gown. It was interesting for me to learn more about her specific tribe through this process and I was glad we were able to find a space in between for her tribes tradition.

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