19 September 2014

A Return to School, Not the Past

 “He [my son]is the man he is today as a result of the caring yet firm teaching mechanisms in place at Takoda Prep of AIOIC. They integrate state standards with traditional Native teaching methods and I truly believe this is what is needed for our youth of today. Growing up in the city is hard, especially for Native American youth who are constantly being reminded that living in two worlds can be dangerous . . . “

Lolita Granados,
Mother of Takoda Prep Graduate Daryl Moreno

Fall is in the air, and school has once again begun for our youth. It is therefore an appropriate time to discuss the importance of one of our most celebrated programs here at the American Indian OIC – Takoda Prep – and why now more than ever before unique schools such as Takoda Prep are integral to sustaining the vitality of our Native American community. When taken in context of recent events relating to the national discussion involving child rearing and in conjunction with historical antecedents, this program stands as a powerful example of what works for our youth.

As an alternative High School under contract with the Minneapolis Public School District, Takoda Prep is an established program that has empowered large numbers of our community’s young people for two decades. Our students are able to acquire the skill sets and knowledge base required to earn their High School diploma, as well as thrive within the world that they are inheriting. These achievements have been accomplished through Takoda Prep’s commitment to sustaining each student’s connection to their indigenous cultural traditions – a central component within the school’s overall delivery model. This is accomplished through the use of culturally competent curriculum, direct student engagement with distinguished community leaders, and a continued exploration and examination of the indigenous perspective in academics. In fact, these cultural connections are so far embedded within the overall functionality of our school that the teachings of our elders are readily present within the very physical space itself, as opposed to the traditional, individual-focused approach of mainstream High Schools. Examples of this phenomenon in practice is evidenced in how the learning environment is arranged – being consistent with our beliefs regarding the power of the sacred emblem of the circle, and of learning in community. From this overall ethos of empowerment, our students celebrate and sustain their unique cultural identities, complete their High School education, and move on into the adult world as productive citizens.

Unfortunately, our school was created from an existing need, and that need has been prevalent throughout our recent educational history. But from where did this need arise in the first place? The answer lies in the seemingly unending struggle between cultures within this nation regarding the determination of the best way to raise and educate our youth. What typically has occurred thus far has been the repeated attempts by one culture to assert their dominion over the other, while the other continues to fight for its right to self-determinant policies.

“In these fine new buildings Indian children still commit suicide, because they are lonely among all that noise and activity. I know a ten-year-old who hanged herself. These schools are just boxes filled with homesick children. The schools leave a scar. We enter them confused and bewildered and we leave them the same way. When we enter the school we at least know that we are Indians. We come out half red and half white, not knowing what we are.”

– John Fire, Lakota Nation, on growing up within a government Boarding School
From: Lame Deer: Seeker of Visions (1972)

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photo by Dick Bancroft

It is a generally accepted principle in our society that we all wish the very best for our children. Irrespective of our race, color, or creed, we share the same desire that our progeny are endowed with the very best that life has to offer – or at the very least, better than what we experienced during our formative years. It is the common song of all parents to call upon themselves and the world to assist in their efforts to mold their children into self-sufficient and considerate individuals capable of caring for themselves, their families, as well as the community within which they live. Yet despite this commonality, we are not of one mind, and the ways in which we raise and discipline our children vary from culture to culture, from region to region, from house to house. Such differentiation also includes the preferred practice of formal education. In this context, the nature of the classroom and how it operates on behalf of the pupil has been a historical problem with profound ramifications upon the lives that it has impacted within the Native American community.

This is the primary source of persistent trouble that plagues us today with a palpable air of hostile divisiveness. Whenever one segment of the population attempts to dictate to another the best manner as to how to raise their children, it is most often met with defensiveness, derision, and at times outright defiance – as expressed by those who are trying not to be subjugated. One would think that such responses clearly indicate that the espoused methods for child development are in all reality harmful, offensive, and unwanted by the receiving party, and yet these attempts at “persuasion” continue on. This process has never been more visible nor more impactful than with concerns to our Native American community and its ongoing relationship with public education.

Born from its history when the cessation of hostilities were eventually effected between the United States Army and the First Nations of this continent, formalized schooling of our people was, from the start, imbued with a patrician attitude by the dominant culture – misguided by the false precept that we were in need of “saving.” It was the commonly held belief that our traditions and beliefs represented a way of life antithetical to “civilized” living, and therefore would need to be vanquished for the good of all mankind. More specifically, it was believed that our people were in need of a structured, formalized education to, at the very least, extinguish our resistance to the lifestyles espoused by the conquering United States. Why would we resist if we truly knew how beneficial it is to live in the manner established by the immigrant populations streaming throughout the land at that time? (An interesting historical note to posit towards today’s citizenry: How eager would you be to secede and succumb all of your ways – including your language – in favor of the chosen lifestyle of the newly arriving immigrant populations coming United States now in the 21st Century?) The central presupposition by the dominant culture at the close of the 19th Century was that our indigenous culture, our indigenous method of education, our preferred indigenous ways of childrearing were totally without value in the newly expanding – and militarily successful – United States of America.

From this jumping off point our nation entered a systemized and highly regulated effort to “kill the savage, and save the man” – most significantly exemplified by the creation and maintenance of government-run boarding schools. Our native children were housed within these institutions after having been forcibly stripped from their parents and removed from their own homes. Through a ceaseless educative campaign that relied heavily on corporal punishment (including whippings with a switch – what is past is prologue) our little ones were brutalized into adopting the language, history, and behavior of the dominant culture. Although the boarding schools were the most heinous iteration, the campaign to assimilate continued on for the next one hundred years. It has taken the form of despicable representations of our people within curriculum used by schools, as well as the adherence to a highly regimented, competitive, and deficit-based public education system that values individuation over collective success. Despite the ongoing public outcries from our people that this form of school system is poisonous to our young, it still remains largely untouched. Despite ample evidence that alternative methods of learning have generated success among our Native American children, these adaptations to the classroom experience have often times been marginalized through lack of endorsement or sufficient financial support by the powers that be.

Such emphases as dictated by the public education system today continue to run directly counter to the indigenous methods of community-centered, cooperative learning models that benefited our youth for centuries. Our preferred model – as employed by Takoda Prep – allows for fluctuations within the day so that each student may continue to construct their knowledge in a manner most beneficial to themselves and to their contemporaries, and where the relational component between each student – as well as between student and staff – serves as the centerpiece upon how the educative process unfolds. Unfortunately, even to this day, these antiquated, assimilative practices are still widely employed within the public education system. When one examines the data relating to Native American achievement within public schools, we remain far below our cultural peers on almost every metric. Is it any wonder why? Enter Takoda Prep of AIOIC . . .

The American Indian OIC will endeavor to retain our understanding and awareness of the fact that the students who have chosen our High School have arrived upon our doorstep as the result of an array of challenges unique to Native American youth. With the possession of such understandings, we will continue to work hard on behalf of those who are enrolled at Takoda Prep so that they continue to feel welcome with the full force of compassion and expectations held by our esteemed community at large. We believe it is our duty to instruct our own youth as to the ways of our elders and the meanings behind our traditions in addition to the “3 R’s” most commonly affiliated with schools – and to do so in a manner determined as a best practice for our people by our people. We refuse to abdicate these responsibilities unto another party any longer. Through our adherence to such principles, the American Indian OIC believes that our community itself will be best serving our children by not only broadening their understandings and appreciation of our indigenous culture – but also thus serving to sustain its vitality and value of our ways for generations to come.