Voices in Education

Native American Heritage Beyond the Month of November

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As Alaska Native mothers, educators, and active community members, we are driven to shed light on what Indigenous students and families experience, in hopes to spark action in educators and administrators nationwide into making schools, curriculum, teaching and learning accurate and inclusive. As the Alaska Native Education Director for the Fairbanks North Star Borough School District, Princess Johnson, Creative Producer of MOLLY OF DENALI and former chair of the ANE - Parent Advisory Council, and I, Yatibaey Evans, have interwoven lives and passion for growth. We are both lifelong learners and hope to share some of this knowledge with those who have an ear to hear.

Over the course of many years, we have worked with people of a multitude of demographics and cultural backgrounds. We celebrate the relationships that have developed over the past decade throughout our community. Throughout this time there were also constant reminders as to why we need to continue to be reflective of ourselves and work to be the best version of that. 

While reflecting, it is important to start questioning the systems and policies that are in place within your local school and community. In our local community students were reprimanded for wanting to wear traditional regalia during graduations. This was challenging for our families to find out. Thankfully Indigenous parents brought forth their concerns to the school board and a new policy was created that supports Indigenous students wearing their regalia during commencement.

On another occasion, some of your young hunters innocently and accidentally brought a subsistence tool (a pocket knife) in a backpack to an elementary school. A prime example of the ways Native people continue to be criminalized for practicing our ways of being on our own homelands. These incidents are emotionally taxing as they put us in situations where we feel we need to educate, defend, and justify our rights to exist and practice our cultures. We are grateful for the allies who help to advocate and create space alongside us as we work towards racial justice in our Nation. We are still here, healing, growing, advocating, and ready to openly share our different cultures and practices as people’s hearts are open to receive.

We have encouraged educators in our school district to update curriculum that perpetuates and indoctrinates students into false narratives - in particular, around Christopher Columbus and Thanksgiving - but also narratives that relegate Indigenous Peoples to the past or quantify us as ‘something else’, as if we aren’t still here care-taking these lands and making positive contributions to our world. Princess and I wrote the first Indigenous Peoples Day Resolution for the Fairbanks North Star Borough School District (FNSBSD) in 2015. It was met with bureaucratic blockades. However, the Native community came forward during that month’s school board meeting, which happened to occur on Indigenous Peoples Day. After their testimony on “Non-Agenda Items” one of the school board members made a motion to approve the resolution, it passed unanimously. 

Last year, we worked with one of our local schools to update a Thanksgiving event hosted by 2nd grade students that still had them dressing up as ‘Pilgrims and Indians’. This was wrong. The principal and classroom teachers listened to us, they worked on a new presentation that countered the false narratives they had been perpetuating, and explained the backstory to all of the parents. This presentation brought tears to our eyes, it was a step in the direction of healing. 

Alaska has long been grappling with making our schools more welcoming and inclusive.“The Alaska Standards for Culturally Responsive Schools” is a resource that speaks to attending the cultural well-being of our students and is a thoughtful, yet underutilized resource. 

We have created and shared a number of resource links below, but in the meantime, here are immediate suggestions for educators. 

  1. Breathe deep, be open minded and kind to yourself, willing to try new things, and be a reflective practitioner. We offer up so much gratitude to you, you who are at the forefront of change, of educating our youth during these revolutionary times, while all of us are also doing our best to navigate a global pandemic and climate change. We understand change can be uncomfortable but know there are Indigenous people in your community who you can reach out to to have some of those Courageous Conversations. Educators around the world are feeling a sense that their cup is empty, so make sure you take time yourself to practice self-care.
  2. If you haven’t started utilizing and understanding what a Land Acknowledgement is, then now is the time. This is an opportunity to research, honor and acknowledge whose traditional lands we occupy and understand past and on-going injustice and oppression of Indigenous Peoples. Consider coupling your classroom’s land acknowledgement practice with actions that your students or parents can take to support a local tribe. Spend time out on that land and maybe learning the names of some local plants and learn about ‘Honorable Harvest’ that Robin Wall Kimmerer so passionately speaks of. You can download the Native Lands app to your smartphone to help identify who the stewards of that land are. Your local tribe may also have resources on how they prefer to be acknowledged.
  3. When you come across text that relegates Indigenous Peoples to the past or attempts to group us together as a monolith - take the opportunity to have a critical discussion about how we are still here. There are over 574 tribal nations in the US alone, each with their own languages and cultures! Explore the work of Illuminatives and take action to help us change the narrative.
  4. Learn where all your children’s family’s come from. A great project is to do a family tree; having students learn their ancestry empowers them to continue growing in their identity. Teaching Tolerance is a great resource to learn more about implementing culturally responsive teaching strategies and has a lesson plan on creating a family tree. Indigenous people have been told that our way of doing and being would bring fire and damnation. The residual effects linger in the lives of our future leaders. It is our job as educators to build them up and encourage them in their personal growth. The First Alaskans Instituteoffers a multitude of resources on Race and Equity. The National Indian Education Association supports educators with online resources for the classroom, how to have Tribal Consultation, teaching about Thanksgiving from an Indigenous perspective, and much more!
  5. Maintain your hope. Keep trying, reflecting, practicing kindness and sharing. Remember laughter is medicine - Native humor is one of the values that is shared across our Alaska Native tribes. When Princess and I get to laughing with each other it’s soul filling and spirit lifting.


Resources


The header art is by Apay’uq Moore, Yup’ik artist from Bristol Bay.

Yatibaey Evans and Princess Daazhraii Johnson Yatibaey Evans, Alaska Native Education Director | Princess Daazhraii Johnson, MOLLY OF DENALI Creative Producer

Yatibaey Evans is from Mentasta, Alaska and is part of the Ahtna culture, stewards of the Copper River region. Yatibaey has four incredible sons ranging from ages 20-7. Yatibaey has a BA from University of WA and a MAT from Johns Hopkins University. She is the current President of the United Way of the Tanana Valley and Past President of the National Indian Education Association. Yatibaey is the first Alaska Native president of NIEA, a grassroots organization working to improve education. The late Bill Demmert, who is Oglaa Sioux and Tlingit helped establish NIEA in 1970. As an active member of the Fairbanks Coalition Builders, Yatibaey strives to share the truth in love and sit with others as they share their stories.

Princess Daazhraii Johnson is Neets'aii Gwich'in and lives with her three sons and partner on the traditional territory of lower Tanana Dene lands in Alaska. She is humbled to serve on the board of Native Movement and NDN Collective - collectively, she works to protect the lands, waters, animal and plant relatives that continue to take care of all of us. Princess received a B.A. in International Relations from The George Washington University and a M.Ed. at the University of Alaska Anchorage. She has served on the SAG-AFTRA Native American Committee since 2007 and in 2015 she was appointed by President Obama to serve on the Board of the Institute of American Indian Arts. She is a Sundance Film Alum, a current Nia Tero Storytelling Fellow and is the Creative Producer and a screenwriter for the Peabody award-winning PBS KIDS series MOLLY OF DENALI.

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