According to the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII), there are six major challenges impacting Indigenous Student Success today:
- Lack of respect and resources in education systems, causing a critical education gap
- Numerous obstacles to education
- Loss of identity, caught in no man’s land
- Invisible and at risk youth
- Education is often irrelevant
- Despite efforts, there is no solution in foreseeable future
I first read this report when I was researching degree programs two years ago. My initial reaction while reading that was, “I am Indigenous. My son is Indigenous. Is that why I had such a difficult time in school? Is that why my son is having some challenges today?”
I was an Indigenous student in Anchorage, Alaska not too long ago. I graduated from high school in 2010. I transferred from a rural school district to an urban school district in primary school. I did not have a single Alaska Native teacher until college.
From birth to age seven, I spent my days playing outside in the woods, picking berries in the tundra, and working hard in the summers with my mom, grandma, and great-grandma. I went to fish camp, picked wild greens, and learned traditional recipes that were passed down through generations. I came from a town where everyone knew my parents, they knew my grandparents, and great-grandparents. I came from a tight-knit community where everyone had an understanding of each other.
In second grade, a HUGE change happened. My family and I moved to Anchorage because my dad got a promotion at the airline he was flying for. I was so excited to see the big city! My mom told me that my new school had plenty of opportunities for me — even different languages!
When it came time for the first day of school, boy was I nervous. You see, I didn’t sound like I do now. My speech, intonation, and vocabulary were definitely from Bristol Bay. I remember looking at my classmates in the second grade and thinking, “Eeeeli, how come nobody looks like me? How come nobody sounds like me? I’m even dressed differently! Gotchaaaaa. Everyone is talking so fast!”
Even though I had those thoughts, I mustered up the courage to play with classmates and everyone seemed very nice. I just had to learn that they had different jokes than I. Different values than I. They didn’t know the same words as I did. You see, we were different.
In third grade, a boy from Togiak joined my class. He was Alaska Native, too. I was happy to finally have somebody there who understood me. He knew exactly what home was like, he knew my jokes, and I didn’t have to try to explain all about who I was as a person. He and I became very good friends.
In the beginning of fourth grade, our teacher asked us to create a family tree over the weekend. This assignment called for us to use a structured tree of both your mother and father’s side of the family. The teacher mentioned that, if we needed any help, we could raise our hand and talk it over as a class as other students might have questions too. My new friend and I immediately locked eyes across the classroom because we knew it was going to be a very hard assignment…
You see, I have many uncles, aunties, grandmas, and cousins and it’s especially challenging to identify who is actually related to me. I come from a family where we call my grandma’s two sisters “grandma” as well, and I have many aunties who are not actually related to me. I also happen to have two dads, one biological, and one step-parent and I’m close with them both, and I call both of them “dad”.
You see, my biological father and mother come from two of the biggest families in the rural town I used to live in. It turned out, that I didn’t actually know much about my biological father’s side of the family, of whom I was still so close with. I knew their names, I knew they made the best deviled eggs and potato salad, I knew that my cousins and I were so close and that I talked to my aunts almost every week. But what I didn’t know was the basic information of, Who are my biological dad’s parents? What were their names? How did they get to that rural town? Are they even Alaska Native at all?”
I was embarrassed to explain all of this and I was mostly embarrassed that I never gave my dad’s side of the family a thought, considering I knew everything about my mom’s side. There was no way I was going to raise my hand and give myself away like that in the classroom, in front of everyone. At that moment, everything I knew about my family life seemed to crumble. Those relatives on my real dad’s side that I knew so well, seemed to fade away in my fingertips because I couldn’t explain who they were on this piece of paper with lines forming a tree. It felt as if I didn’t even know who I was – I was experiencing a loss of identity. This family tree assignment had turned into a full-on crisis.
I went home and cried at the dinner table that night when my parents asked me about my homework for the weekend. I explained to my mom that I didn’t know how to do my family tree assignment because I didn’t know who my real relatives were. I clearly remember seeing her smile as she said, “yes you do, follow the matriarch, you know me, your bothers, grandparents, auntie, and uncles.” She was referring to strictly her side of the family. I told her that I needed to include my dad’s side of the family as well. That weekend, she tasked me with calling my biological dad’s sisters to ask questions about our family. I was blown away about what I learned. I learned that we are originally from Canada with French and German roots. I learned that I have even more relatives there and on the East Coast. I learned that my biological father is also half Aleut and that I have my grandma’s name as my middle name. I learned that they have a real family tree, documented, and that I was already on there!
I went to school the next Monday with one of the biggest family trees in the class. In addition to adding my dad’s side of the family, I decided to throw in some of my favorite (but not blood-related) aunties and uncles too. I also described all of the research I had to do over the weekend, and explained that, in my culture, we only follow the matriarchs. This is why I knew so little about my dad and his family. My best friend in class, the boy from Togiak, didn’t do his assignment.
The rest of elementary school was fun! I was in IGNITE/the gifted program and Russian Immersion started — I even started playing the violin!
It wasn’t until middle school that I noticed things started to get a little more challenging for me, and I’m not necessarily talking about academics. I was thankful that most of my elementary school friends came to the same middle school, but I’m not sure what happened to my friend from Togiak. I had a whole new set of teachers, I had new principals, and there were a lot more kids at this school. The school was even physically bigger, two stories, lockers, and all!
Then, there was that feeling again…I was nervous, and I could feel it in my stomach. I didn’t want to be singled out in any classes by students or teachers. If I had the ability to blend in…I would have. In seventh grade, I remember thinking, “thank goodness I told my mom to get that Old Navy vest everyone is wearing because now at least my clothes blend in…”
I had gotten a fair share of whale and igloo jokes from other students, but I just chalked it up to the fact that they didn’t know who I was, and I didn’t really want to explain. It was much easier to change my appearance, enunciate words, hangout with new friends, eat different foods and learn new slang. Middle school was a turning point in identity and how I perceived and portrayed myself.
Although academically I was succeeding in highly gifted and honors classes, concerns were still voiced to my parents about my shyness, quietness, sometimes eye contact — the biggest buzzword I heard was classroom participation. I always wondered what that was all about — I was doing the work! It’s not my fault that I think it’s rude to interrupt the teacher. In my culture, we listen and wait for everyone to be finished talking before we share our knowledge. Sometimes, this means I’m waiting for an invitation.
You see, I knew the school loved me, cared about me, and wanted the best for me…but I still felt like they didn’t actually know me.
“Is Raquel’s first language English? Does she speak anything else at home?”
They asked what home life was like, and why I was so quiet. At one point there was an assumption I lived in a single parent household. They didn’t ask. So what they didn’t know is that my dad was a pilot, so he couldn’t come to all conferences. We were invited to events and there were always comments about transportation and cost – I never understood this, coming from a dual-income household of a principal and a pilot.
Although people were just trying to make a connection with my family and I, there was actually a major disconnect — they didn’t know who I was, even after all of those questions.
In all honesty, as a child, I dreaded parent-teacher conferences year after year because I felt as though assumptions were made about my family and I even before we walked through the door. I felt as though educators were trying their best to connect with me, but I always wondered — do they ask the same weird questions to other kids? It didn’t really seem like it in the classroom…
The teachers I trusted the most and looked up to in grade school knew the power of culturally-responsive practices and they celebrated diversity. I didn’t feel singled out in their classes. They asked meaningful questions and held me to the same standards as my peers, while taking into consideration I might have different strengths than others. They asked me about my family. They asked me about my hobbies. The key here is they asked, and they listened. They met students halfway by creating a culturally-responsive classroom and leveraged those teaching methods to foster lifelong connections with their students. In fact, I still have relationships with those educators today, who are now my colleagues and mentors.
Looking back now, through the lens of being an educator myself, I learned that schools were trying to make learning more meaningful to me. I learned that they had data and goals they were trying to monitor and achieve, most likely pertaining to my Alaska Native / American Indian Minority Group. While earning my Certificate in Early Childhood Indigenous Education, I learned about adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), socio-economic impacts, the four great deaths of our people (Diseases, Alcoholism and Substance Abuse, Enslavement and Boarding Schools, Disconnection from the land, water, each other, and self) Most importantly, I learned about how we can leverage culturally-responsive practices in education to Increase Indigenous Student Success.
As educators, we want the best for students; we care about them and we are kind to them. A majority of educators have taken culturally-responsive courses and follow the practices on a regular basis in hopes of creating a connection to increase student and family engagement.
So what is the disconnect? Where is this cultural gap stemming from? The truth is, just knowing how to be culturally-responsive isn’t enough. We need to have cultural context; take the time to get to know your individual students and their families, their traditions, and unique cultures so you can incorporate local ways of knowing. Use the local environment and community resources on a regular basis. Invite members of the community to collaborate in appropriate and supportive ways. Work closely with parents and family members to achieve a two-way dialogue about expectations.
Students are more than data or statistics, more than demographics that pertain to measured goals. Students have unique characteristics, each developed within, from their own experiences and cultures.
As educators, our job is to recognize the full potential each individual student has and provide opportunities for growth through learning experiences. Help these individuals achieve their full potential.
By doing this, we can help put an end to the never-ending cycle of the Indigenous Education crisis happening in our community, and the world, today.