Columbia Heights American Indian Education program empowers students and families

Over the past two years, the Columbia Heights School District has prioritized the need for a strong American Indian Education program and has been making strides in inclusion, student empowerment and family connectedness.

The district has recognized the effectiveness of student learning through reflective and engaging curriculum.

“We are really incredibly passionate about making sure that all of our students have equitable access to their education,” Interim Director of Student Services Laura McLuen said. “Part of that means that they are able to see themselves reflected into the curriculum, but also that they are able to access it and interact with it in ways that are meaningful to them and their lives outside of school.”

Helping American Indian students to learn more about their rich cultural heritage, Columbia Heights Public Schools has integrated a “Native American stand” into an inclusive curriculum. The district has evolved from holding a single joint Pow Wow once a year to a more focused approach on American Indian topics and an expanded program. Pictured is Columbia Heights student Jesse Davies Jr. at the Columbia Heights Pow Wow held at the end of May. (Sun Focus photos by Sarah Bughardt)

This factor has been incorporated into the “Native American Strand.” This inclusive curriculum strand aims to embed the Native American narrative and perspective into both curricular and instructional practices.

Reflective and inclusive curriculum

Its clear that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to teaching and it is important for educators to take strategic approaches while teaching culturally diverse groups. The Native American culture is often left behind when considering demographic categories, often placed in the “other” because of affiliation in more than one racial grouping.

“Our superintendent is very firm on saying, ‘our American Indian population may be small, but they are not insignificant.’” Director of Teaching and Learning Zena Stenvik said. “Even if numbers are still lower than other populations, they still matter, they’re here and they’re a significant part of our community.”

Stenvik attended a training session at the Minnesota Humanities Center titled the “Absent Narrative Project.” The session provided a method of exploring school curriculum and discovering whose voices are absent.

“If you just purchase a text book and teach out of that, you’re going to be missing a lot of multicultural perspectives,” Stenvik said. “It’s really about how to unpack that and making sure that we’re really connecting with people in the community and get people of that culture’s perspectives, so we’re really incorporating authentic voices into the curriculum.”

District officials attended the Native Studies Summer Workshop for Educators Conference in 2014. The conference allowed Columbia Heights educators to connect with American Indian experts, who were later recruited to help educate additional staff in the district. Columbia Heights staff has also connected with the University of Minnesota, the Minnesota Humanities Center and the Indian Land Tenure Foundation to help develop the curriculum into an accurate and effective program to support American Indian students and their families.

District staff began by reviewing student enrollment files and reaching out to families that identified as American Indian. By focusing on family outreach and engagement, CHPS has expanded from a single Pow Wow held jointly with Fridley and Spring Lake Park Public Schools, into monthly American Indian family events, classroom learning, field trips and a mentorship program.

CHPS created a new position and hired Dave Larson, a Dakota elder, to spearhead program initiatives and support American Indian students and families. Larson is the American Indian Check and Connect Mentor for both elementary and secondary-level schools in Columbia Heights. In this role, Larson is able to connect with American Indian students and provide them with college and career resources, help with scholarships, support their academics and affirm who they are as people in their cultural heritage.

Larson said he really enjoys checking in regularly with the students he mentors.

“What I really want to do is make American Indian students feel good about being in schools,” Larson shared. “I’m trying to make learning about themselves a lot more enjoyable and something that they can use to feel good about themselves.”

Larson said he believes that “real education is knowing yourself” and through his mentorship and the Native American strand, students are able to find their identities, allowing them to be more successful in life.

Columbia Heights Public Schools hosted an American Indian Pow Wow on May 20 at the Hylander Center. The event featured drumming, singing, dancing and games for the entire community to enjoy.

“Dave has been such a fantastic addition to our staff,” McLuen said. “He has taught at the college-level and has done so much for the native community. For the last couple years, he’s been that someone in the building for our Native American students to check in with and get help with whatever they need.”

Family connections

Larson said that even some American Indians know very little about their rich history and culture.

“Since the 1800s, Indian children have been sent to boarding schools and not allowed to learn about themselves,” Larson said.

Since his arrival, Larson has made an effort to connect American Indian families to their culture. The group of American Indian students and their families meets once a month in the evening, shares a meal and learns from different American Indian speakers. The subjects can range from talking about sugarbush, harvesting maple syrup, avoiding American Indian gangs and making tobacco.

He encourages parents to learn about the American Indian culture so they can pass along their knowledge to the next generation.

Inclusive curriculum

CHPS has utilized many different resources and experts in curriculum development.

They have collaborated with the Minnesota Humanities Center, as well as the Indian Land Tenure Foundation. This foundation has a resource titled “Lessons of our Land,” which they use to work with school districts to develop curriculum around American Indian topics. Members of the foundation have worked with teachers of various subjects to assist in ensuring lessons are authentic and accurate.

Inside the inclusive American Indian curriculum, CHPS staff has developed grade-level learning trunks for all elementary students in the district.

Each grade level has a topic, and with the help of American Indian experts, artifacts and realia are chosen to make the trunks “come alive.”

Columbia Heights Schools Check and Connect Mentor Dave Larson has made an effort to connect American Indian students and their families with the culture and history of their elders. The American Indian families meet once a month to learn about and discuss a range of topics including harvesting maple syrup, making tobacco and more. Pictured are families enjoying the Columbia Heights 2017 Pow Wow held earlier this year.

For example, the fifth-grade trunk’s topic is “buffalo.” The trunk is filled with books, real buffalo bones, skin and fur, as well as items made with buffalo leather. Each trunk includes literacy lessons so students can connect their reading and writing to the American Indian topic.

In second grade, students learn about American Indian perspectives on seasons. They work with the district garden specialist to learn about and select native plants to grow in the outdoor classroom, then they get to taste wild rice. The second-grade trunk includes such items as different types of wild rice, a winnowing basket, rice knockers, a model canoe and many books.

On the secondary level, both English and Social Studies teachers have been able to collaborate on inclusive curriculum lessons and resource exploration. Some of these lessons include outside-of-the-classroom activities, including studying original American Indian texts at the Minnesota History Center on the mass hanging of 38 Dakota men in Mankato in 1862. To fully engage the students, the class took a trip to Mankato during spring break to visit Reconciliation Park, the site where the mass hangings occurred. They also had the opportunity to visit the Bdote site below Fort Snelling where the wives and children of the deceased were forced to march. These powerful, on-site experiences have proven to have lasting impacts on students, both academically and socially.

Rise above

Larson is determine to help all American Indian students, as well as educate others about the native culture. He shamed American Indian portrayal in movies and said that Indians are often misrepresented in mainstream media.

“Like I always tell students, movies aren’t meant to educate, they’re meant to make money, and that’s all they’re meant to do,” Larson said. “We’re so small in numbers and don’t have the resources to combat this.”

He said its important for American Indian students to know that they can do anything and absolutely should not limit themselves.

“I’ve developed a theory that real education is knowing yourself, and I’m trying to help students find their identity,” said Larson. “We’re here for a reason on mother earth, it’s time to start finding out why.”

American Indian families, as well as many members of the community, participated and learned about the traditions of Pow Wows at the Columbia Heights event. Columbia Heights Public Schools encourages on-site learning experiences in the American Indian curriculum. As part of a writing summer school program, students had the opportunity to travel to Bdote Fort Snelling. This is the location of the largest mass hanging in U.S. history of 38 Dakota men in 1862. The Bdote site below Fort Snelling is where the wives and children of the deceased were forced to march. Pictured are Columbia Heights students inside the Thomas C. Savage visitor center, located below Fort Snelling, at the Bdote site. (Photo provided by Columbia Heights Public Schools) Kindergarteners at Valley View Elementary watch a native dancer and her daughter perform. The special event followed a week-long lesson on American Indian music and traditional dancing. Each grade at the elementary level has a “learning trunk” filled with artifacts and realia to allow for hands-on learning. Kindergarteners at Valley View Elementary enjoy playing with traditional American Indian drums. The inclusive American Indian curriculum strand aims to embed the Native American narrative and perspective into both curricular and instructional practices. Pictured are students practicing traditional drumming at the 2017 Columbia Heights Pow Wow.
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Columbia Heights Public Schools encourages on-site learning experiences in the American Indian curriculum. As part of a writing summer school program, students had the opportunity to travel to Bdote Fort Snelling. This is the location of the largest mass hanging in U.S. history of 38 Dakota men in 1862. The Bdote site below Fort Snelling is where the wives and children of the deceased were forced to march. Pictured are Columbia Heights students inside the Thomas C. Savage visitor center, located below Fort Snelling, at the Bdote site. (Photo provided by Columbia Heights Public Schools)