Resurgence Gathering: A Community of Practice to Restructure Urban American Indian Education

American Indian OIC (AIOIC) convened the Resurgence Gathering at Anahuacalmecac University Preparatory School in Los Angeles, California last week. Indigenous educators from six metropolitan centers from throughout the US gathered to follow up on the National Urban Indian Family Coalition’s 2017 report Resurgence: Restructuring Urban American Indian Education. As the lead researcher for Resurgence, AIOIC’s president, Dr. Joe Hobot, visited Indigenized schools in Denver, Seattle, Albuquerque, Portland, Minneapolis, Milwaukee, and Los Angeles where he learned about the pedagogical strategies being employed at the schools. What emerged was an innovative, and highly Indigenized set of alternative methodologies seldom reflected in the mainstream school system. The prevailing sentiment shared by all who participated in the research was a sense of working in isolation, coupled with a desire to both share and learn from other educators operating similar programs. As such, American Indian OIC, in partnership with the National Urban Indian Family Coalition, brought the schools together to establish a community of practice.

Over the course of three days, Indigenous educators shared pedagogical strategies, curriculum ideas, and reflected on education policy. The gathering was significant because it demonstrated the continued need for innovation in the arena of public education for American Indian students. Many of the programs find themselves in an adversarial relationship with their local education system for reasons like adherence to the status quo, structural racism, or failure of imagination and innovation. These schools however, have strong relationships with their communities and are fueled by a passionate parent base, intent on preserving and advancing these alternative programs on behalf of their students. Within this context, the formation of a community of practice becomes important for providing support across programs and regions, and underscores that these innovative programs are not alone.

What is exciting about these Indigenous schools is that their programs are yielding meaningful academic results: high rates of attendance, graduation, college enrollment, and test results for American Indian students. It is clear that these results are directly tied to the innovation of the schools and the integration of Native ceremonies, language, history, and values into curricula. In coming together in community, it became apparent that the work will continue in a supportive manner with ongoing national dialogue provided by the participating schools. What has begun is a movement; for which all indicators point toward growing the community and learning from more Indigenous education programs.

In the coming weeks, Dr. Hobot will be developing a report on the gathering that outlines the work being pursued. American Indian OIC is excited by what the future holds for this community and is incredibly grateful to the National Urban Indian Family Coalition for their partnership, and the Marguerite Casey Foundation, Charter Communications, Comcast Foundation, McKnight Foundation, Potlatch Fund, and Spencer Foundation for supporting this important work.

Please consider playing a part in our community’s resurgence by making a tax-deductible donation to American Indian OIC. Your gift is an investment in the future of our young people and in the future of our community. Chi miigwech and wopila tanka.

Takoda Prep at JAG Film Festival

“Film Festival showcases Takoda Prep community and gives students opportunity to network with local professionals from the community 

Networking is an important formula – a little bit of charisma, an open mind, some practice, and just a bit of luck. This tool is a crucial one in the professional world, and it is one that can usher in a new career, endless connections, and a solid support network. High school students get very few opportunities to learn networking in school, not to mention practice it. The students at Takoda Prep are getting a jump start on this vital life skill that, if given the right place and time, can catapult them to where they want to be. 

At this November’s JAG Film Festival and Networking Event, nine Takoda Prep students represented their school and community in what would be an incredible experience for years to come. The event took place at the Capri Theater on Broadway Avenue and included dozens of other high school students as well as valuable individuals with whom they could network. This group included realtors, film editors, human resources specialists, community planners, program managers, and many more. There were employees from many companies including Wells Fargo, US Bank, Fruit of the Loom, Hennepin Healthcare Systems, as well as countless others. 

 The ability to network was something these students truly had to work towards. JAG instructor Kyna Bate-Boyle spent weeks teaching students techniques, phrases, body language, and even proper attire to have successful interactions with employers. Ms. Kyna also had the students create their very own business cards. These business cards were a reflection of professionalism and the networking preparations truly helped the students feel like confident young adults who could promote themselves and make connections. 

Once at the event, the students flourished. As they mingled in a relaxed, open setting, introductions between one another and the professionals occurred organically. Students were not forced to talk with anyone, and from this format came natural connections between people. Clayton, a senior, said that the event was a chance to get to know what it’s like to talk to people you don’t know and practice public speaking skills. Even though some students were shy at first, having trusted adults nearby, such as Ms. Kyna and Jess Rousseau (PLUS Case Coordinator from Takoda Prep), allowed the students to be comfortable enough to step out of their shells. Another senior, Chariah, said that the set up of the room allowed her to see others networking, and that made her feel at ease in doing the same thing. Even though there was pressure from being in a new environment, having many other high school students and easy to talk to professionals made the event a success. 

The event concluded with a short film festival exhibiting each alternative program in Minneapolis Public Schools. “The students worked very diligently on creating a film that truly showcased what Takoda Prep encompasses,” said Ms. Kyna. It was extremely powerful for students to view their school on the big screen and show off the amazing work they do at Takoda Prep. They were also able to see other alternative programs which gave them perspective and showed that they aren’t alone in the alternative education world.  

All in all, the event was a great success. The students walked away from it feeling more confident than ever before with a wonderful new experience that will propel them forward in their lives. 

Summer School at Takoda Prep

Summer school has wrapped up at the high school, and another year of valuable additional learning time is in the books. Over the course of three weeks, 11 students from various grades earned additional credit in science, social studies, health, and physical education. The guiding questions behind this project based learning experience was inspired and driven by the forthcoming renewal plan for Takoda Prep. This renewal plan is intended to “chart a course for Takoda Prep of AIOIC as it transitions from its current mode of operation into a program more deeply contextualized within Indigenous values and practices.” To implement this renewal plan, Takoda Prep will utilize the Seven Learnings for an Indigenized School (aka “The 7 L’s”) which include:

  1. Learning Out-of-Doors
  2. Learning in Community
  3. Learning Across Generations
  4. Learning in Redefined Spaces
  5. Learning Leadership and Advocacy
  6. Language Revitalization
  7. Learning Indigenous Cultural Practices

During the 2017 summer school session, staff at Takoda Prep began to work towards the 7 L’s. To read more about this renewal plan, please read our recent press release, AIOIC’s Takoda Prep Nationally Recognized for Closing Achievement Gap.

The focus of this year’s summer school experience was native and indigenous plants. Some questions that drove this focus included the following: “What benefits do native plants have to humans and wildlife?”; “What native plants can we find right outside of school?”; “How do non-native plants affect the ecosystem?”; and “what are invasive species and why is it important to keep them under control?” In answering these questions, the students gained significant knowledge in plant parts and functions, nutritional needs of various indigenous plants, soils, and water, and the benefits of cultivating a garden.

In the process of gaining this knowledge, the students worked hard to weed, till, and plant donated native plants right outside of the school. The benefits of this new garden are multifold. Students who are involved in gardening at school get multidisciplinary opportunities on a daily basis, including biology, math, social studies, and even physical education. Soft skills are also addressed, such as interpersonal communication, organization, and time management. These valuable soft skills will be available to these students not only in the upcoming school year but also throughout their lives.

Another benefit to gardening at school is that it is an opportunity to connect with nature. In the urban setting that Takoda Prep is situated within, students don’t typically get a daily dose of nature. However, the therapeutic effects of engaging with the natural world have been proven over time. This directly relates to the first of the 7 L’s, Learning Out-of-Doors. “Through such direct interaction with the natural environment, students are afforded the opportunity to apply traditional teachings regarding responsibilities for stewardship of Mother Earth… .” Students will continue to reap the benefits of this garden and stewardship for years to come.

We were also able to connect as a community to the history of the space. If you have ever been to our campus at American Indian OIC, you may have noticed that our grounds are almost jungle-like in mid-summer! The lush vegetation provides a beautiful barrier from busy Cedar Avenue, and if you look closely, you can find many native plants. Sage, green onions, roses, ferns, and others are all among the beautiful outdoor classroom that is our campus. One lesson of summer school included the students venturing out onto the grounds and identifying the names of plants, whether or not they are native or invasive, and other scientific analyses. This deep interaction with the space in which these youths spend so much of their time connected them with the history and ecology of the area, but also forged their ownership over their space. These activities connect directly to leadership skills and the agency to advocate for their needs and goals (the fifth of the 7 L’s). Of course, the amount of physical and mental work this project required perhaps seemed daunting to the students at first, However, once the class finished the garden, they took a step back and could feel a deep sense of pride over their accomplishment.

Finally, the students took a field trip to Bdote (Fort Snelling) to identify plants and learn from a larger space. Learning in Redefined Spaces (the fourth of the 7 L’s) was a fantastic opportunity to remove the restrictions of the traditional school space. The students were free to walk and look at their own pace, and they applied the many skills we had been learning each day at summer school. Bdote is particularly important in terms of learning environments, as it is considered of major spiritual and historical importance to the Dakota.

More information about the renewal plan of Takoda Prep will be forthcoming this fall. To find out more information about enrolling a student in Takoda Prep for the 2017-18 school year, please contact Chris Hubbard, Education Director, at (612)341-3358, ext. 158.

Press Release: AIOIC’s Takoda Prep Nationally Recognized for Closing Achievement Gap

Minneapolis, Minn., June 30, 2017– Takoda Prep, the alternative high school located at the American Indian OIC, has been selected as a site of best practice in a national report on indigenized education for Urban Indians. Commissioned by the National Urban Indian Family Coalition in Seattle, Takoda Prep will be one of seven programs located in five different urban centers to be examined for harnessing culturally contextualized education and alternative learning methodologies to close the achievement gap between Native students and their white counterparts.

President and CEO of AIOIC, Dr. Joe Hobot has been commissioned to visit each program and write about their practices in a report due to be published in early Fall of 2017. Hobot says that “showcasing effective practitioners of culturally-contextualized education is critical to upholding Native values and traditions in the classroom, where Native history is often overlooked or rewritten, as well as highlighting the need for national and federal funding for these schools.”

Takoda Prep of AIOIC enrolls students who have fallen behind in the traditional educational setting and are at risk of dropping out. Located within the Little Earth neighborhood of Minneapolis, most students are Native American whose elders did not complete school. The graduation rate for American Indian students in Minneapolis is 36 percent. Through individualized education plans and culturally relevant programming, students at Takoda Prep graduation at a rate of 85 percent.

The mission of the American Indian OIC is to empower American Indians to pursue career opportunities by providing individualized education, training, and employment services in a culturally rich environment. The organization was founded in 1979 as a practical resource to respond to the considerable education and employment disparities faced by American Indians living in and around South Minneapolis. In the years since its founding, the AIOIC has built a workforce of over 20,000 people from the entire Twin City area and tribal nations across the country and is a nationally recognized leader in the workforce development field. Although it was founded to support people of Native descent, the American Indian OIC’s resources and programs are available to all persons regardless of race, creed, age, gender, or sexual orientation.

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If you would like more information about this topic, please contact Ivy Estenson at 612-341-3358 ext. 125 or email at

Support System That Carried Two Graduates across the Finish Line


Each individual who enters the doors of American Indian OIC holds within them a story.

Although each of these stories is different – one common thread is constant during students’ time here: the strength of the support system that lies within these walls. This support system is  what keeps students coming back each day, and also what carries them across whatever finish line is their goal. Because of our small size and our commitment to give each individual the attention they deserve, we become an integral role in student success.

One recent graduate of the GED program, Sam, has been attending the programs here since 2012. He initially came to AIOIC because “it felt like home.” Sam grew up in the neighborhood. He had family member and friends who worked or attended school here. He felt comfortable in this space, and that’s what drew him to the program initially.

Sam’s road to this major life milestone has had its ups and downs. Attendance to the program has “been here and there. I was always working and making excuses.” But in the end, he always returned to the building that felt safe, welcoming, and supportive. No matter what, Sam knew he could pick up where he left off.

Though he has faced challenges, there have been a lot of positive aspects of his time at the AIOIC. He has seen many students come through who have wanted to give up, but staff members like Annessia Swann, ABE Director, and Leeann Nelson-White, Navigator, are always there to push students forward. “I was very close, like [other students], to giving up. They kept telling me to pull through and keep going, and I gave it my best shot.” It is incredible how much difference those words can make. A constant stream of support is truly what kept Sam motivated on a day to day basis.

Ultimately, it came down to a choice. Sam knew he had to be willing and motivated to make school a priority. Even though he always felt the need to be working, the choice to return to school was driven by the knowledge that when he completed his GED, a series of doors would be open that would never have been available without this credential. “I just didn’t want to continue working for minimum wage.”

Sam earned his GED in early March, but this is just the beginning of his journey. He will be attending school at Takoda Institute in the spring, enrolling in the Computer Support Specialists track. After that, he may move out of state to try something new. He also hopes to settle down, own his own place, and have a good paying job. All of these next steps are very attainable now that Sam has obtained his GED!

Another success story comes from the high school ,Takoda Prep. Jesse first came to AIOIC during the summer before his senior year. He was behind on credits, and his plan was to make up some credits and then return to his traditional high school to graduate with his class. However, things did not quite turn out as planned. Jesse was unable to stay focused. He didn’t feel supported by staff members, and the environment was not encouraging. At a mainstream high school, Jesse says, “you’re not being welcomed or getting the support or motivation from the staff.” Before he completely lost track, Jesse made an important decision: he returned to Takoda Prep to finish up his last few credits.

“There were times I actually liked coming to school,” Jesse said of his time at Takoda Prep. He felt like the environment and staff members really helped him stay productive. Every day that he came to school he felt supported and welcomed by teachers. Jesse said that it doesn’t take much: just encouragement and support to get their work done and succeed. That looks different for every student, but Jesse is right. Most of the time a student simply needs to feel like they are heard and have a place.

His grandfather was also a crucial person in his support system. Originally from Red Lake, his grandfather has lived in Washington D.C. for quite some time. However, he would still speak with his grandfather almost daily about staying on top of responsibilities and finishing school. “Having him reach out to me from all the way over there really means a lot.” Those frequent conversations the two had were a definite incentive for Jesse to finish up and make his grandfather proud.

In the fall, he will be attending school at MCTC to study business management and ideally would like to be a blackjack dealer. Eventually he would like to be in higher management, but right now Jesse wants to try out working in a casino to see just what role he would like to land in. He may move to D.C. to be with his grandfather to experience a new city.

His advice to current students is simple. “Don’t fall behind and don’t procrastinate. Keep on top of your work! Once you get everything done, then you can kick back and relax.”

The formula is this: the motivation from within, with an added dose of support from the welcoming environment at AIOIC. That’s all these two men needed to succeed.

-Written by Takoda Prep Instructor Christy Hicks

Family Night at Takoda Prep

Families packed into the one room school house on the evening of Wednesday, March 15th for the quarterly family night at Takoda Prep. The night has always served several purposes: for staff and families to get to know one another, to discuss student progress, and to eat dinner together. However, with the planning and coordination of the newest staff member, Jessica Rousseau, ALC Plus Care Coordinator, family nights have become a fun night of games, delicious home cooked food, and deeper connections between staff and families.

The highlight of the evening was when families played a game that the students helped invent called Better Know What I Know, a spinoff of the classic Newlywed Game. In the planning stages of the event, students helped to decide what game should be played. They thought it would be fun to test their parents’, guardians’, siblings’, and cousins’ knowledge of little facts about the students. Some examples of questions included, “what year was I born?” “what’s my favorite topping on pizza?” and “what’s one word you would use to describe me?” Of course, the answers caused uproarious laughter from the whole crowd. This game served as an excellent opportunity for families to spend time together, get to know one another, and feel truly comfortable in this space. Some students even used the microphone that was set up – which is saying a lot for our particularly shy students!

Staff members Chris Hubbard, Christy Hicks, Tom Lonetti, and Toby Schroeder also had great opportunities to get to know family members one-on-one. Many great conversations were had about students’ academic progress, personal growth, and challenges faced. Staff always struggles to connect with families as often as they would like as a result of families’ busy schedules and limited staff resources. But the conversations during family night were meaningful and insightful. One new student, who just moved from Canada, brought his family. His step father told staff that the student was very nervous about starting a new school two-thirds of the way through the year. He was nervous about getting lost and fitting in, especially in a completely new space. However, the student’s mom found Takoda Prep, and so far everything has gone very well.

Another new student, Clayton Feriancek, told staff a story about his experience so far at Takoda Prep: “I was sick a couple of days and it was the first time I have ever woken up that I was disappointed that I wouldn’t be able to go to school that day. And when I came in the next day I was really excited that I could get all the work so I could stay caught up.” This statement is a wonderful testament to the environment at Takoda Prep. The school prides itself on being a highly welcoming environment for youth who have previously struggled at traditional high schools. Students at Takoda Prep truly feel like they belong in this community. They are excited to be here and thrive amongst staff and peers who treat them like equals.

The food and prizes of the evening were also a hit! Families munched on fried chicken, delicious salads, and cheesecake bites. There were also great prizes that promoted family time such as banana splits and a movie and a cake decorating kit.

If you are interested in supporting Takoda Prep, consider donating to American Indian OIC so we can continue to make this an ideal learning space for our students.


Earlier the same day, the students spent a time volunteering at Feed My Starving Children in Eagan. They packed meals to be sent to Nicaragua for children who face hunger and poverty. Working hard and helping one another to pack as many meals as possible, the group ended up packing over 16,000 meals! It was a great experience in teamwork and also exposed students to global issues. Having the opportunity to help people in another community while having fun and working hard was a fantastic experience for the high school.

The next day, students and staff took another field trip. This one was to St. Thomas University in St. Paul. The group was able to walk around the campus a bit and view what it would be like to attend school as a college student. The main purpose of the field trip was to attend a screening of the nationally acclaimed documentary, The Seventh Fire. This film follows the life of Rob Brown and Kevin Fineday, residents of Pine Point, Minnesota on the White Earth Indian Reservation. The two men struggle with addiction, gang life, incarceration, and staying connected with their culture. It is a film entrenched with sorrow and challenging topics, but ultimately carries many important lessons. Though there is no true conclusion shown in the film, the students had valuable conversations on the bus ride home about the themes of the film and what may have come of the individuals shown.

All in all, it was a busy week of growing as individuals, getting to know one another, laughing together.

View the trailer and reviews of the film here:

Education Leads to New Career for Takoda Graduate

Cory, a proud member of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe, knew he needed a change. He was working in a low-paying job that was starting to take a physical toll on his body. He wanted a job that had financial security and opportunities for advancement and one that was less physically straining. With the guidance of a caseworker at a Minnesota WorkForce Center, Cory determined that further education was his solution.

Last fall, Cory enrolled in the Takoda Institute’s Computer Support training program. During the program, he acquired the foundational skills and knowledge needed to enter a job in tech support. He found the atmosphere at Takoda to be serious, but also one that didn’t create unnecessary stress for students. Grants and scholarships allowed Cory to complete the program free from the burden of student debt and even provided some cushion for living expenses. He was also able to gain valuable hands-on work experience in his field by completing an internship.

In just nine months, Cory completed training and was ready to enter the tech workforce. He strived for excellence and was determined to stand out amongst the rest, especially to prospective employers. So, when the opportunity for employment presented itself, Cory was eager and ready. A staffing firm came to the school looking for tech workers to fill open positions. Takoda staff referred Cory for employment and, because he already had practical experience from his internship, he seamlessly transitioned into employment. He is grateful to his Takoda career counselor whose skills and dedication contributed to his gaining employment. “His help is a major reason I got hired so quickly after I completed the program. The things David taught me will continue to serve me well into the future.”

Cory is now working as a Technical Support Technician and is charged with moving things along as efficiently as possible in a fast-growing technical support department. He has increased his earnings by 40% and offers this advice to incoming students, “be efficient, productive, and constant in your awareness of what you set out to achieve.” Cory is excited to excel in his position and looks forward to advancing in his career.

 The Takoda Institute is enrolling now for its next quarter. Graduates will gain hands-on experience and vocational knowledge in the fields of health information, computer support, or administrative support. Students are also provided with a career counselor who will help them develop a professional profile, gain work experience, and connect to employment in their field of study. To learn more, follow this link.

If you are an alumnus of American Indian OIC’s programming and would like to share your story of success, contact Lucie at 952.977.9303.

Josh’s Success Story

Josh completed the Takoda Institute of Higher Education’s accredited Health Information and Patient Services Specialist occupational training program. Grants and scholarships fully covered his tuition, books, and fees. He was also provided with free job search support as he worked to enter his field of study. Here Josh shares an update on his life since graduation.

Before enrolling at Takoda Institute, I was jumping between food service and retail jobs, rarely earning above minimum wage. I was frustrated at the fact that I could never get ahead and felt stuck. I had heard of Takoda years before and even got to the point of attending the informational session but it took the strong encouragement of a friend to go back and check it out. Attending the classes at Takoda was challenging but what I found was a huge support system from faculty, Takoda employees and my fellow cohorts.

I now work at the Native American Community Clinic as a Front Desk Registration Coordinator as well as a Certified Tobacco Treatment Specialist, earning my certification at the Mayo Clinic. In May, I will be going to the University of Minnesota to learn Anishinaabemowin (the Ojibwe language).

Since graduating from Takoda Institute, I’ve more than doubled my income with my new job. The experience I gained from Takoda Institute bridged the gap from a volunteer position to a paid position.

I love working with the Community and being at a place where I have so much opportunity for advancement. I never would have gotten where I am today without the encouragement and support I received at Takoda Institute. If there’s anything I can say to current or future Takoda students, it would be to just push through the work and don’t give up! Getting that certificate was so much more than a piece of paper; it was an opportunity to cross the barrier from a job to a fulfilling career.

If you are a past student or participant of an American Indian OIC program and would like to share your success story, please email or call 612.341.3358, x128. 

Takoda Prep Student Amongst 6 Honored with “Beat the Odds” Scholarship

Picture of scholarship recipients courtesy of the Star Tribune
Picture of scholarship recipients courtesy of the Star Tribune

Text Taken from the Star Tribune article “6 Twin Cities students honored with “Beat the Odds” Scholarship” by James Walsh.

It’s telling, really, when young people who have struggled through poverty and hardship for most of their lives look to turn their lives over to helping others. For Shamaria Jordan and Christopher Oquist, two of six Beat the Odds scholarship winners honored Saturday by the Children’s Defense Fund, growing up without stability, safety or even heat in the winter has inspired them to not only excel, but to assist.

“I want to be a social worker, and I just want to help kids in poverty and help them get out of that,” Jordan, 18, said Saturday. “Just because of the way that I grew up, I just want to help kids who are having the same troubles and feel like they don’t have a way out.”

She plans to attend Coppin State University in Baltimore, Md., after graduating from Minneapolis Edison.

Oquist, who survived his parents’ drug-dealing and years in foster care, is aiming for law school after Augsburg College so he can advocate for other young people who have been removed from their families.

“I just try to do what is best,” the soon-to-be Minneapolis Roosevelt graduate said Saturday. “I make no claims on being the standard for how to overcome barriers, but maybe people can learn from the things I do.”

That’s the hope of the folks at the Children’s Defense Fund-Minnesota, which for more than 20 years has recognized extraordinary young people who have overcome adversity to achieve academic excellence and aspire to attend college.

Oquist and Jordan will be joined by Domenic Johnson of Minneapolis North Community High School, Hennessey Carlbom of Takoda Prep in Minneapolis, Sebastien Lannelongue of Minneapolis Southwest High School and Mela Nguyen of Great River School in St. Paul in receiving $5,000 scholarships.

Gov. Mark Dayton and Children’s Defense Fund founder and president Marian Wright Edelman were scheduled to be on hand during Saturday night’s ceremonies at the University of Minnesota’s McNamara Alumni Center in Minneapolis, as were Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges and St. Paul City Council President Russ Stark.

Jordan, who has been a regular honor-roll presence, captain of the track team and a volunteer, acknowledged that her life could have taken a very different turn. She grew up in the shadow of family members’ addiction. Her family often lived in homes with no heat and no water. She wants to make her mother proud and give hope to her younger siblings and other struggling children, she said.

“At the time when it’s happening, you try not to think about stuff and how it’s affecting you,” she said. “But when I look back on it, I just feel amazed, like, ‘Wow, I really went through all that.’ ”

Oquist, too, thought about becoming a social worker after a childhood that saw his parents taken away by police who crashed through the back door of their home. Child protection workers took Oquist and his two brothers, leading to years in foster care and, eventually, adoption.

His adoptive father, who is Anishinaabe, taught Oquist about his American Indian culture and community through Sun Dance and powwow ceremonies.

“My only option to succeed is through education,” Oquist said. “I cannot and will not be like others before me who gave up on their dreams.”

Those dreams now have turned him toward a career as a family law attorney after spending the past two summers working at local law firms. “I want to help young people build relationships with someone who knows what they are going through,” he said.

The K-12 system didn’t fail the American Indians.

The K-12 system didn’t fail the American Indians. Its methods have followed its own design to the letter…

Formalized education in the United States was not designed to empower us. It was designed to pacify us, while it extinguished our culture.

Credit: Otis Historical Archives National Museum of Health and Medicine, Indian Training School, Carlisle, Pennsylvania. School room building.
Credit: Otis Historical Archives National Museum of Health and Medicine, Indian Training School, Carlisle, Pennsylvania. School room building.

The relationship between the American Indian people and formalized education within this nation is one of contention, controversy, and trauma. The school system of the United States was not designed to give our people an opportunity at having a stable, thriving life whereby our culture could flourish. For that reason, when evaluating it today, the educational system of the United States has in fact been a success.

From the earliest days, the federal government’s plan for “educating” American Indians was to forcibly relocate and assimilate our elders within the dominant American culture. The chosen vehicle to accomplish this task, after warfare, were the schools. The targets of these assimilative practices were the most impressionable and vulnerable population to be found – our youth. After years of rolling warfare throughout the American frontier (what the United States would refer to as the “Indian Wars” but what we refer to as our fight for survival) a deep desire to pacify the indigenous people once and for all permeated the halls of Washington D.C.

Yet even before the bloody conflicts of the 18th century came to their malicious conclusion with the massacre at Wounded Knee, the dominant culture had already philosophically justified their subjugation of indigenous people through their own legal opinions. Courtesy of the Marshall Trilogy of Supreme Court rulings during the 1820’s, our ancestors were deemed as nothing more than “wards of the state” – wayward orphans in need of the continual guidance and protection as rendered by the federal government. It was believed by elected officials of the day that the United States possessed an obligation to incorporate American Indians into the greater American diaspora. More importantly, the federal government sought to prevent us from disrupting the successful westward expansion of the nation through our ongoing resistance to white settlement as effected through force of arms.

A GROUP OF 15 HAVASUPAI INDIAN SCHOOL CHILDREN POSING OUTSIDE OF THE SCHOOL. 16 NOV 1938. Grand Canyon National Park Museum Collection, P.O. Box 129, Grand Canyon, AZ 86023
A GROUP OF 15 HAVASUPAI INDIAN SCHOOL CHILDREN POSING OUTSIDE OF THE SCHOOL. 16 NOV 1938. Credit: Grand Canyon National Park Museum Collection.

Sixty years later, as our warriors and spiritual leaders were killed, assassinated, and imprisoned, federal concern then turned towards the next generation. As described in the works by David Wallace Adams, John Reyner and Jeanne Eder, and Jacqueline Fear-Segal (Education for Extinction, American Indian Education: A History, and White Man’s Club – respectively) thus began a systemic conscription of American Indian children – often times taken forcibly against the will of their parents – on into a rigid educational structure situated far away from their families and ancestral lands. It was here at these remote locations, behind the high brick walls that bordered the stone barracks where our children were warehoused – that the public educational system set to work to purposefully exterminate our cultural identities. Today this period is referred to by American Indian scholars as the “Boarding School Era.” Yet within those institutions, despite the inhumane brutality imposed upon them on a daily basis, our ancestors heroically managed to keep our culture alive. In the face of corporal punishment, sexual and mental abuse, and isolation, the culture was somehow preserved by those that were there. This continuance of our language and of our ways – often times pursued in secret and at great risk to the individuals who dared – will serve as a supreme act of resistance from which our currently reality is derived.

By the 1920’s, when it became apparent that the forced assimilative practices of the boarding schools were failing to engender the desired results sought by government officials (i.e.: the complete extinction of indigenous cultures in North America), mainstream public schools in surrounding municipalities were then turned to as the principle means for acculturating American Indian youth. Here, as before, there were no considerations whatsoever regarding our unique cultural status, and our desire to preserve it. As a result, no allowance was made for any type of educational offering to support our indigenous identities. Instead, our youth at that time were enrolled into a public education system that had been modeled upon the estimable tenets valued by an industrialized society. Along with their non-Native peers and recent European immigrants, students were force-fed into an academic machine that provided assembly-line educational practices designed to produce “citizen widgets” – capable of little more than holding down menial, low-skill jobs upon graduation. Our boys were taught rudimentary skills within the industrial arts, and our girls were schooled only in the ways of home economics and child rearing. Such a narrow focus reflected the limited nature to which educators viewed the prospective futures for American Indian youth. These methods would continue on without disruption for the next forty years.

Credit: Canada Biblio Archives
Credit: Canada Biblio Archives

It was not until the political upheavals of the late 1960’s, where the civil rights movement and identity politics surged to the forefront of American consciousness, when the American Indian community began to galvanize for change. For our people, the work of Vine Delora, Jr., Richard Oakes, John Trudell, and the American Indian Movement brought forth a new awakening that called upon the need to practice and teach our culture in more overt ways – particularly if it were to survive for future generations. As detailed within Judy Davis’ 2013 work, Survival Schools, by the early 1970’s the American Indian people began to take community control over the education of their children. Parents and elders began placing emphasis on the practices and traditions of our people over the insistence of an industrialized educational system that had thus far failed to provide a stable future for our people.

As a result, within these new, small, community-controlled schools the American Indian culture became the fulcrum upon which the development of our youth would hinge. Yet despite these modest successes occurring in rather isolated pockets, the majority of our children were still ensnared within the machinery of American public schools, with their academic achievements wilting under the continual denial of the life-giving traditions and customs that were such familiar nutrients within their homes and amongst their families. For so many of our students, academic success was a near impossible realization as they found themselves being ground up between the gears of a system that continued to refuse to acknowledge cultural distinctions among their students.

Now with the 21st Century underway, many new and progressive educational approaches have begun to surface in several different locations, and have been applied towards American Indian education (many of which were pioneered right here in the Twin Cities). The work of the Minneapolis Public Schools District’s Indian Education Department, as well as schools such as Takoda Prep of American Indian OIC, stand as powerful testimony to the efficacy of this new vanguard of pedagogy – whereby a strong hybrid of American Indian culture and traditional academic pursuits are offered in tandem for our students. Yet funding remains at a premium, rationed out among a myriad of other enterprises deemed of equal import by civic leaders. There is so much more to do, particularly when considering what is occurring beyond the city limits of Minneapolis and St. Paul.

The massive brick building of St. Michael’s Indian Residential School at Alert Bay, British Columbia, Canada Credit: David Stanley.
The massive brick building of St. Michael’s Indian Residential School at Alert Bay, British Columbia, Canada Credit: David Stanley.

In this respect, the public school system continues to fail the majority of American Indian students, but when considering what it was designed to do by its original architects, it also could be argued that it has performed exactly as intended. As current academic data in the state of Minnesota indicates, the youth of our people continue to struggle mightily to achieve in this current educational system. In the end, as they reach adulthood, many cannot help but to emerge and live lives within the modern economy that resemble the very “wards of the state” designation bestowed upon us by John Marshall nearly 200 years ago. Yet despite these recorded failings, the current system remains incredibly rigid – still slavishly adhering to its own industrialized design and sense of self-import. Despite the successes demonstrated in certain arenas as mentioned above, the system continues to addictively reinvest staggering amounts of money back into its own failing enterprises without much in the way of incorporating new and innovative models that have proven successful. Why?

A century ago, the provision of a proper education for our people that included our culture, and that was supported with a full complement of resources was believed to be a dangerous enterprise – empowering designated enemy combatants of the United States. It was believed by government leaders that such measures would invariably reconstitute an indigenous resistance, that once reformed would have to yet again be contended with by the United States military – only now perhaps on more equal footing. This was simply never in the plans for this republic during its infancy, whose citizens found themselves squatting on foreign land and feigning ownership of a continent that was not theirs.

Here now, in 2016, evidence continues to pour in yearly demonstrating that the educational system simply does not work for all students – in particular for American Indian youth. Instead of diversifying their approaches, and further supporting differentiated delivery models that offer culturally contextualized programming (such as what is offered at Takoda Prep of American Indian OIC, or through Minneapolis Public School’s Department of Indian Education), the system powers forward insisting upon the preeminence of its own authority and efficacy – despite the data. For our community, such insistence by the system in favor of itself makes us wonder what its true motivations are. From our perspective, it is hard to see much difference from what has come before and what is in effect today. As we tend to our children and grandchildren, we are no longer interested in feeding them into a machine that merely produces wards of the state. We demand something different . . .