A quote attributed to Maya Angelou reads, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then, when you know better, do better” (qtd. in Treuer). The Minnesota public education system has made significant strides toward improving the education of Native American students. At different intervals throughout history, attempts have been made to improve the quality of education. In 1969, the Senate Subcommittee, led by Senators Walter Mondale-D, Edward Kennedy-D, and Peter Dominick-R, investigated the issue of Native American education and found it to be a “national disgrace” (Meyer 18). This national disgrace turned into a national challenge and the passing of the federal Indian Education Act of 1972, which, among other things, “focuses national attention on the educational needs of American Indian learners, reaffirming the federal government’s treaty responsibility related to the education of American Indians and Alaska Natives” (Minnesota Department of Education 12). The Minnesota Indian Education Act of 1988 recognized the responsibility of the state to uphold treaty rights, including ensuring an equitable and culturally responsive experience for Minnesota’s Native American students. In 2007, the National Indian Education Study found that the achievement gap between White students and Native American students is alarming, with only 2 out of 5 Native American students graduating high school within four years, versus 4 out of 5 White students (Minnesota Department of Education 13). Since 2007, Minnesota state statute has required the contribution of Minnesota Native Americans in all subjects that have Minnesota standards. It is clear that there has been a historic attempt to “do better” by Native American students in Minnesota once we “know better.”
The state legislature needs to provide funding for teacher training in cultural sensitivity and cultural literacy. All teachers, from preschool through 12th grade, need to be provided with this training. Simply mandating that Native American contributions be included in the state standards without providing the necessary training is like offering a piece of leftover birthday cake to a child who wasn’t invited to the party. At best, it is tokenism; at worst, it can perpetuate stereotypes and myths. Teachers need fully-funded professional development, and they need to be compensated for this professional development training.
A few examples might help to clarify. Teachers are already overburdened with meeting standards, along with all of the other social services and surrogate parenting that they provide on a daily basis. Knowing that she has to incorporate Native American culture into her classroom, a well-meaning but culturally uninformed first grade teacher may decide to have the students dress up as Pilgrims and Indians and “re-enact” the Thanksgiving myth that continues to perpetuate. Unknowingly, and most likely without malice, she has perpetuated a mythology that is inaccurate and misleading. Instead, Dr. Star Yellowfish suggests replacing “Pilgrims” and “Indians” with more specific and accurate words like “English” and “Wamponoag” (qtd. in Holcomb). Instead of creating paper feathers, which is not sensitive to the sacredness of the feathers, Dr. Yellowfish suggests making beaded necklaces. She suggests that educators focus on the Wampanoag’s contribution to helping the English survive, the cultural harvest of the “three sisters” (corn, beans, and squash), and the acts of diplomacy and civil discourse between two very different cultural groups coming together to solve problems (Holcomb). It is clear that some sensitivity training is necessary for teachers to learn respectful and tactful ways of teaching about Native American history and culture.
Another example would be an eleventh-grade American literature teacher who is teaching a survey class and has organized her coursework chronologically. She logically thinks of starting with some Native American mythology, so she finds some stories to share. Again, what seems like a relatively innocent attempt to incorporate the Minnesota State standards ends up being culturally inappropriate. Storytelling is a sacred act among Ojibwe people, and there are certain stories that can only be told when there is snow on the ground. Mike Swan, a spiritual leader for the Pine Point community on the White Earth Reservation, states, “There are a lot of stories that are out there. . . . Some are very long, some are very short. A lot of them are told during the wintertime, when there’s snow on the ground, but there are some stories we tell when there’s no snow on the ground, so you have to be careful which stories you tell when” (qtd. in Johnson). If this teacher is beginning the school year with these stories, it is September, when there is no snow on the ground in Minnesota. She has unwittingly committed a cultural faux pas. Again, without cultural sensitivity training that is specific to her subject and grade level, this is what happens more often than not.
Another danger with beginning with the Native American mythology and then moving on to Colonialists, Romantics, Realists, and if there is time, Modernists, is that the Native American literature is treated like ancient history, as if it doesn’t exist in other time periods. This is true in social studies, history, language arts, and other humanities classes. According to Jeffrey, “In fact, many students are actually surprised to learn that Native peoples still exist. It is almost as if Gen. Richard H. Pratt, the founder of the Carlisle School, was successful in his attempt to ‘Kill the Indian, and save the man.’ Many non-Native students assume Native people must have died off since they largely disappear from textbook narratives after the 1890s.” Jeffrey contends that while most educators do not teach critical race theory, they absolutely should teach history as it actually was, not as it should be. Again, the history teacher who begins with Native American history and then moves chronologically forward to the Revolutionary War, Civil War, and so on is not deliberately trying to relegate Native American history to the ancient past, but that is exactly what he is doing.
One popular choice of literature for students in grades 9 or 10 is Sherman Alexie’s book, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. It is listed as one of the approved books on the Minnesota Department of Education’s website. It is a popular book among teenagers because it is a somewhat irreverent, funny, character-driven narrative of a Native American teen who feels like a misfit. Sherman Alexie has stated in interviews that the novel is semi-autobiographical. Students like it because they can relate to the quirky, awkward narrator. The problem with including this novel without sensitivity training is that it perpetuates the stereotype of drunkenness, high suicide rate, poverty, and dysfunctional families of reservations. Alexie, through the main character’s voice, paints a very bleak picture of reservation life, and in the end, finds his saving grace by leaving the reservation and attending the nearby White school of Reardon. While this may be Alexie’s real lived experience, without training teachers about how to talk about alcoholism, depression, suicide, and other important topics in the book, there is a danger of doing harm by perpetuating stereotypes rather than dispelling them. In this case, inclusion of the literature would do more harm than good.
The new draft of the Minnesota standards for math has recently been under some criticism for the frequent references to Minnesota’s Native American tribes. The Minnesota Department of Education conducted a survey of 265 respondents, including teachers, administrators, community members, and parents. Of those, 162 responded negatively, and only 15 responded positively. The rest were neutral. One administrator stated, “Our MN students are failing math readiness for college. Please prioritize basic math concepts uncluttered by attempts to mix math with social studies and politics” (qtd. in Vergas). One community member stated, “Stop the disingenuous virtue signaling. . . . It is very insulting to us Anishinaabe people” (qtd. in Vergas). As can be seen, the effort to incorporate Native American references may be unintentionally insulting, having the opposite effect of its intent. In the same survey, one math teacher wrote, ““I like the incorporation of the Native American tribes, but will we get some resources?”(qtd. in Vergas). Unfunded mandates are clearly not the solution.
The spirit of the state standards is an attempt to do better now that we know better. However, adding in the Native American tribal references to story problems on math standards is little more than tokenism, and may result in insulting, uninformed, or even stereotypical references. Teachers are doing the best they can with the resources that they have. If this is truly a value that the state of Minnesota wants to place on educators, then provide full funding for all educators from Pre-K through 12th grade to get multiple days of workshops on culturally sensitive topics. Pay the educators and the presenters an appropriate stipend for their time. This was done in the Park Rapids school district in 2010, when I wrote and received grant funding from the Minnesota Humanities Commission to have Dr. Anton Treuer, an Ojibwe language and culture professor at Bemidji State University, do a two-day workshop for the faculty at Park Rapids schools. The teachers received a stipend for their time, CEUs, and the option of earning one graduate credit, for a fee. This is just one example of what can be done. This type of training should be provided for all Minnesota teachers at regular intervals throughout their careers. Teachers are doing the best they can with what they know. Support their efforts by helping them to know better, so they can do better to serve all students in the state of Minnesota.
Alexie, Sherman. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 2009.
Holcomb, Sabrina. “Native Educators Say Thanksgiving Lessons Can be Accurate, Respectful, and Still Fun–Here’s How.” NEA News. 11 Nov 2020. https://www.nea.org/advocating-for-change/new-from-nea/native-educators-say-thanksgiving-lessons-can-be-accurate
Jeffrey, Joshua Ward. “Why Do Native Peoples Disappear From Textbooks After the 1890s?” 16 Aug 2021. EducationWeek. https://www.edweek.org/teaching-learning/opinion-why-do-native-people-disappear-from-textbooks-after-the-1890s/2021/08
Johnson, Marie T. “Ojibwe Tales That Can Only Be Told When There’s Snow on the Ground.” 19 Dec 2019. Detroit Lakes Tribune. https://www.parkrapidsenterprise.com/news/ojibwe-tales-that-can-only-be-told-when-theres-snow-on-the-ground
Meyer, D. Eugene. “We Continue To Massacre the Education of the American Indian.” Journal of American Indian Education, vol. 11, no. 2, 1972, pp. 18–25. http://www.jstor.org/stable/24397008
Minnesota Department of Education Report to the Legislature. Advisory Task Force on Minnesota American Indian Tribes and Communities and K-12 StandardsBased Reform. 15 May 2009.
Treuer, Anton. Everything You Wanted to Know about Indians But Were Afraid to Ask. Borealis Books, 2012.
Vergas, Josh. “Minnesota Teachers, Parents, Criticize ‘Awkward’ Tribal References in Proposed Math Standards.” Pioneer Press. 30 Mar 2022. https://www.edweek.org/teaching-learning/Minnesota-teachers-parents-criticize-awkward-tribal-references-in-proposed-math-standards/2022/03
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One thought on “Help Minnesota Teachers Do Better: Fund Culturally Sensitive Training by Tanya J. Stafsholt Miller”
Tanya in my opinion after 50 years in MN Public Education as well as Regional politics, in practice we still only give lip service to this travesty. As you know I tried to get Ojibiwe accepted as a second language in PR curriculum. I also applied for a grant which we didn’t receive, after my retirement, to continue my working with Native American students. Thanks for your efforts and insight.