In October I attended the National Indian Education Convention in Oklahoma City. It is a place of rich Native cultures and beautiful landscapes. It is so flat in Oklahoma City you cannot see the horizon and the winds sweep you off your feet as they rush across the plains looking to knock over whatever lies in their path. There were places in the downtown area where the wind hit you for a few steps then slowed down. The Native people there are a mix of those who have been in this place since the beginning of time and those who came here as a result of forced removal from the lands of their creation. They all have made a place for themselves.
They have learned to live together and we witness the strength of their work in the faces of their elders and the hopefulness of the young. I picked the convention as my urban theme this time because I noticed that the voices of our advocates for our urban children and youth are finally becoming more prominent. There is a greater emphasis through the NIEA Urban Indian Education sub-committee and in the content of workshops on how we can better serve the diverse Native population in our public schools. This leads to more focus also on mainstream colleges and how they may be serving Native student populations.
Reservation, rural and urban Indians must work together to ensure the best education for our children, our youth and our college students. I believe that public schools through local, state and federal support have a moral and legal responsibility to ensure that our children have adequate resources and support to get a quality education that includes support for cultural education and to meet any special economic or social concerns. Tribes have the duty and the legal right to insist upon this education and should not have to pay for it.
We are each uniquely identifiable as a people because of our specific tribal languages, our connection to a place that we call our homelands, our social, economic and governance systems and our relationship with creation. It is very important as we focus on our children who are in public schools that we help them make the connection to their homelands and to the traditional knowledge that is their identity. It takes work and it take cooperation because the diversity of most public school settings especially in urban centers creates a high risk for pan-Indian practices to prevail over the effort it takes to help each child find out more about their own people. In many cases, this is made more complicated by the inter-tribal identity of our families.
But we can do it, my own children and grandchildren are mostly living in the cities in pursuit of employment so as a family we have to make a special effort to tell stories, practice our traditional ways and touch base with our relatives and our home. They are inter-tribal being Sicangu Lakota as well as Shoshone-Paiute. Because my children were raised in Rosebud they are mostly Lakota in their understanding of the world but they know they have a rich Native heritage in all of their tribal ancestry.
Generally, public schools won’t give our children their identity, but their family, community and their life education will. We can ask of the schools to represent our identities appropriately and with respect, to give our children access to resources for success, and to ensure equity in their educational experience. Parents and tribes have a right to inform the allocation of resources and to insist that cultural education be as as much a priority as academic support. Cultural studies, curriculum, teaching strategies, extracurricular and co-curricular activities can all be used to support tribal children and youth. As tribal people we must reach out to our families no matter where they are at, using the tools we have access to in the form of new media, to pass on our knowledge.