As a Native Lakota woman, born and raised off of my tribe’s reservation and dedicating my life to equity in urban education, I have always longed to understand the current educational practices and initiatives happening in Indian Country. The history of settler colonialism in schools as an intentionally oppressive practice is a constant, unaddressed wound that Native people carry with us generationally. Decolonizing educational practices relies on tribal nations exercising sovereignty in the classroom as well as teaching students traditional practices and beliefs to mend the great loss experienced generationally from genocide, displacement and now federal neglect. However, the questions remain: how do traditional teachings and modern educational practices communicate with each other in Native communities and does contemporary education address the numerous needs that Native youth experience very viscerally in their daily lives?
My quest to find answers to these questions led me to my cousin by marriage – or as I call her, Auntie – Donita Dubray Fischer, who works with the Great Plains branch of the Intertribal Agriculture Council on the Cheyenne River Lakota Sioux Reservation in Eagle Butte, South Dakota. Donita has also spent time on the school board in Eagle Butte.
Me shawl dancing at age 9.
Learning about the work of the IAC was extremely illuminating to me, an “urban Indian” who works daily to bring industry-relevant experiences to high schoolers in Los Angeles. Particularly exciting to me are the ways in which the IAC serves youth in Indian Country’s rural, agricultural communities. Considering that historically, Indigenous peoples were actively cultivating and caring for land across the pre-colonial Americas for millennia, and were then forcibly removed from said land and expected to create agricultural practices elsewhere, the educational tools required for such complexity are vast and extremely specific.
Yet somehow, through scholarships, youth conferences and programming, the IAC is educating today’s Native youth about extremely intricate concepts such as tribal sovereignty, governance, farm bills and environmentally sensitive agricultural practices. On December 11th, a group of roughly 50 Native high school students have been invited to attend the IAC’s Annual Youth Conference where all of these topics and more will be investigated with Native leaders in the agriculture community, elders and organizers.
At a glance, this work appears to be among the most industry-relevant to Native communities and our young people. The IAC is on the front lines of connecting Native youth with not only regional understanding of their land and tribal land use, but also exposure to spaces where leverage exists for Native people in the national conversation. We are protectors of the land and stewards of our environment, and the Intertribal Agriculture Council has reach politically, economically and personally, handing this important work to the generations following.
Donita also illustrated for me some of the gaps that exist in tribal education, proving to be huge potholes that Native youth on reservations often inevitably fall into. While environmental movements like Standing Rock and international resistance opposing the Dakota Access Pipeline helped to inspire Native youth to activism and land protection, intergenerational trauma and poverty continue to plague most Native communities. Much like the inner city student experience, affording and attending college comes with incredible barriers.
One difference found in the college discussion between rural students and inner city students is a historical concern about leaving home for education. Forced removal to boarding schools in the recent past has elevated the concepts of home and family to a whole new level of importance. Donita describes to me a delightful phenomenon called the “Grandma problem”. Grandmas and elders in Native cultures are very highly valued and listened to and naturally want to see their family units remaining intact. This is a wonderful problem to have and speaks to the leverage elders have in Native families and communities, but we also want to see our young people comfortable and even excited about obtaining educational opportunities in major colleges and universities. That Native people can commune and lead in academic and political spaces is necessary in the survival and development of our people.
While the dominating American value after high school is to leave home, go to college and succeed, the Native message is that of leaving for education but absolutely returning to the reservation afterward to help our people thrive.
The deeper reason behind this thinking is that if Native students leave their farms to go to college and do not return, it means that Native-owned agriculture property is left open to factory farms and “Big Agriculture”; yet another way that colonization continues to loom over the shoulder of Native communities.
“In your ideal world, what would Native students experience in education that they are not getting now?” I asked Donita.
“More culturally specific understandings and teachings, especially for young women,” Donita states. “We continue to need to empower through tradition,” Donita continues, “especially around health issues that we’re experiencing: cancer, obesity and diabetes resulting from environmental racism and lack of food sovereignty. Our children need a culturally sensitive approach to addiction and recovery, and empowerment and self-esteem.”
How schools can accommodate all of this kind of learning requires a completely different approach and educational paradigm than we “city folk” are used to implementing.
But as we know from our work in equity, if we address those that exist in the margins first, then who’s to say that the rest of the population couldn’t learn from these models as well?
Perhaps instructional practices happening in Indian Country are some of the most progressive approaches to education that our Nation is ignoring.