July 1, 2021

Education: The Critical Component to Narrative Change

Education is a critical component of Native nations’ contemporary efforts to pursue bright, Indigenous futures and has a close relationship to narrative change and sovereignty efforts. Native nations and organizations reaffirm their active presence and subsequently exercise their political autonomy by educating non-Native people, while we spotlight the various educational efforts of Minnesota Native nations for young Native people to combat harmful lessons such as Manifest Destiny. Specifically, we highlight some of the ways in which Native-led education grounds Native language and culture through various curricular and pedagogical measures.

Native peoples have a complicated history with institutional education in the United States, and we must begin here to understand the significance of the present. The boarding school era of the United States’ relationship with Native peoples, commonly summarized by General Richard Henry Pratt’s infamous saying “kill the Indian save the man,” is just one example of the way schools have been used to “civilize” and “homogenize” Native peoples.   They are the only schools that included a cemetery. The consequences of this era of cultural genocide through schooling on the Dakota and Ojibwe people in Minnesota were and are severe. Today, out of 20,000 Dakota people across the U.S., only 290 are fluent speakers.  In many tribal communities, no first-language speakers are left at all.

Schools have also been a tool in the perpetuation of narratives of American exceptionalism and Indigenous erasure by framing Native peoples primarily in terms of the distant past, encouraging racist views of “primitivity.”  Even in Minnesota, known by some for its emphasis on the active presence of its eleven Native nations in its state-wide social studies standards, historical and contemporary injustices are glossed over, leaving lots of room for pervasive stereotypes to persist.  When Native peoples are mis- or underrepresented in classrooms across the nation, Native peoples and nations feel the effects through the misunderstanding of sovereignty by “the public or within the judicial system,” and how people glean all understandings of Native peoples from media and sports.

Nevertheless, although American institutional education is partly responsible for the perpetuation of racist stereotypes about Native peoples and their governments, it also holds the key toward changing those narratives. For Native nations in Minnesota, education holds the key toward cultural, economic, and political agency. On their website, the White Earth Nation writes that through education they aim to prepare “our children for a lifetime of choices, not circumstances.”

The importance of language and culture in Indigenous pedagogy cannot be understated. For many Native nations, language is at the center of what makes them a distinct, sovereign people. Thus, as the settler colonial project aims to eliminate Native peoples through either genocide or assimilation, language is targeted for its cultural properties. Nevertheless, many Native nations are looking toward the future by devising innovative ways of preserving language and culture through their younger generations.

In 2018, the Lower Sioux Indian Community started a unique early childhood Dakota Head Start school. The fight to preserve the Dakota language has taken on a new level of urgency within the past decade, as only 290 speakers out of 20,000 Dakota people are left.

Within the Isanti Dialect– the dialect spoken in all Minnesota Dakota nations except for Upper Sioux – even fewer remain, none being from Lower Sioux.  However, with the formation of this program, LSIC now enrolls over 80 students aged from birth to five years who learn Dakota daily. While not yet a complete immersion program, the school aims to be within 5 years by involving parents, teachers, and staff in the language learning process. This program meets a long-acknowledged need by the LSIC community for increased cultural connections for Lower Sioux people of all ages.

Some Native nations have also creatively found new ways of creating tribal cultural pedagogy through partnerships with non-Native institutions. The Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe recently developed an innovative new early childhood education program in collaboration with the University of Minnesota, one founded upon the traditional Anishinaabe practice of learning outdoors and in natural spaces.  To assist with research, planning, and design for the project, the Leech Lake Early Childhood team hired University of Minnesota graduate students. Students conducted a study that presents evidence that spending time outside would have positive health effects on Leech Lake youth.  The heart of the Megwayaak Project, roughly translating from Ojibwe to “in the woods,” is a 3-acre “outdoor classroom” that now serves as an educational resource to the Leech Lake community. This project, both through its pedagogical approach and collaborative creation, serves as a model for future educational partnerships between Dakota or Ojibwe nations and non-Native institutions.

Some tribal nations are pursuing language and culture efforts through K-12 education. Out of the 11 tribal nations which share geography with Minnesota, at least four operate or partner with K-12 schools which hold a strong focus on culture and language. The Mille Lacs Nay Ah Shing Schools are great examples. The Nay Ah Shing Schools, a set of three schools across the Mille Lacs reservation (two elementary and one secondary), describe their mission “to teach Ojibwe Language, Culture, Tradition, History, and Skills to live in two Cultures.”  One way the schools pursue this mission is through Ojibwemowin Enokijig, a language program that integrates Ojibwe into the K-12 curriculum and offers instruction on many cultural activities like ricing, trapping, netting, and maple sugaring.

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