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The Past, Present, and Future Role of Tribal Community Members in Education

By Mandy Smoker Broaddus | March 11, 2019

Mandy Smoker Broaddus
Mandy Smoker Broaddus (Fort Peck Assiniboine and Sioux tribal member) is a practice expert in Indian education at Education Northwest. She has over 15 years of experience working toward social justice, equity, inclusivity, and cultural responsiveness, particularly in the realm of American Indian education.

For many American Indian and Alaska Native people, education is a continuum.

Whether through structured approaches or more informal means, elders and other tribal leaders tend to place a great significance on supporting and guiding youth as they grow and develop. This special involvement can take different forms, including apprenticeships and mentorships.

It is also a traditional value for many American Indian and Alaska Native tribes, as the development of knowledge and expertise over a person's life was essential to the survival and growth of the group—the information, stories, and values that elders upheld and passed down were crucial to the learning community, especially for children and young people.

Some schools have come to recognize this important part of Native culture, and several states have incorporated it into policies and programs.

For instance, Montana, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, New Mexico, North Dakota, and South Dakota have all created alternative licensure programs so elders and other leaders can teach classes on indigenous cultures and languages.

Along those lines, Montana, Washington, and Idaho all offer preK–12 Native language immersion programs. Further, in 2018, Alaska's governor signed an administrative order officially declaring a linguistic emergency for Alaska Native languages—which included steps to revitalize them.

And as REL Northwest described in a recent special feature, tribal community members are working with Native high school students in Great Falls, Montana, helping them build their sense of identity, establish a strong sense of pride in their heritage, and feel more connected.

Additionally, it is important to offer these classes and opportunities that prioritize culture-bearers' participation because representation matters for all students in a school community.

Rooted in History

Recognizing that tribal leaders have played a key role in education—and bringing them into today's classrooms—reflects a growing sense of empowerment, autonomy, and efficacy in American Indian and Alaska Native communities.

And given the lingering trauma of the boarding school era, when Native children were forcibly removed from their families and taught that their language and way of life were not important, it is all the more critical to use education to validate, respect, and carry on our traditions today.

Tied to the Future

To that end, looking ahead, tribes will continue to use or develop their capacity to reclaim the education of their citizens.

We want our children to learn the knowledge and skills they will need to succeed in the 21st century. However, we also want to honor our culture, language, and history, using them as the foundation for our children's education.

When approached as an add-on, meaning relegated to electives or content taught at only certain times of the year, American Indian history and context are devalued or trivialized. Instead, they should be considered simply American history and context and taught throughout the year.

Inviting elders into the school community is integral to the goal of creating well-balanced systems. It is a way of saying, "Your knowledge and expertise are important to us, and we want you to resume your place of stature as an educator."

It is also another way of getting the right people at the table—and in the classroom—and figuring out the best way to serve our children.