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Why It's Vital for Native Students to Learn With a Culturally Relevant Lens

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Ty Powless, a student at LaFayette Big Picture School, is working to repair a bicycle. (Courtesy LaFayette Big Picture School)

Sometimes Armando Ortiz looks back at his life and can hardly believe where he is today. He grew up in White Center, just south of Seattle, and at a pretty early age got involved in gang life and hanging out with people who were getting into trouble. He says much of his early educational life felt like he was being passed along from one grade to the next, no one paying much attention to whether he was learning or not.

By eighth grade he felt behind in every subject except math, which came easily to him, and he was struggling with his work. Life outside of school called to him and homework usually took a place on the back burner. And then two older guys in the gang, who were like brothers to Ortiz, were killed.

“Losing them was kind of a wake-up call,” Ortiz said. He decided to attend Highline Big Picture High School in Seattle to get away from the neighborhood schools, which he knew would draw him back into a lifestyle he didn’t want. At Highline he started taking school more seriously, and he began to discover more about his cultural heritage as a Yakama Indian.

“What it really meant for me was bringing that new identity into myself, like finally knowing who I am as a whole, not feeling like there was a missing part,” Ortiz said. He’d always known he was part Native American, but it wasn’t a part of his identity he knew much about. He’s also part Filipino and part Mexican, cultures that were easier to access and understand where he grew up. At Highline, Ortiz encountered mentors at the Native Student and Family Wellness Initiative, a unique program designed to help urban American Indians from Seattle reconnect with their culture and heritage.

Angelo Baca, a Navajo and Hopi filmmaker who helped start the initiative, was a big inspiration for Ortiz. Baca taught him traditional native games, history and about the legacy of disrespect and discrimination that clouds American Indian education. “After learning a lot about my culture and real history, and looking at real data for native students within high school, college and post-baccalaureate degrees, I got more motivated,” Ortiz said. Baca’s achievements as an employee at NASA and a lecturer at Brown University also inspired him tremendously. “I need to be a positive statistic instead of a negative statistic,” he said.


Now Ortiz is president of the student government organization at Central Washington University, and has worked hard to raise awareness on campus about the culture and history of the Yakama people, whose reservation is near the school. When Ortiz looks back, he’s amazed he’s come so far: “A kid who grew up on welfare, food stamps, going to the food bank and stuff like that, and now I’m involved in student government,” he said. Next he plans to go to graduate school for a teaching credential in secondary social studies, so he can set the record straight with the next generation of students about American history.

Ortiz’s experience shows just how important culturally relevant education can be for native students, who have some of the worst educational outcomes of any marginalized group in the U.S. In 2006, just 26 percent of American Indian youth between the ages of 18 and 24 were enrolled in college or university, as compared with 41 percent of whites. A 2014 White House report on native youth found their high school graduation rate is 67 percent. And since 93 percent of Native American and Native Alaskan students attend public schools, it is imperative that all teachers recognize the particular struggles they face.

Ortiz remembers how disrespected he felt in the early part of his education when teachers talked about how Christopher Columbus had “discovered” America. “I was being told a lot of lies,” Ortiz said. “Reflecting back on it, I just think that sucks. It’s really traumatizing and it’s really heartbreaking. That’s what my little brother is learning.” When Ortiz would push back against a version of history that didn’t recognize the contributions of nonwhite people, his teachers would dismiss him, further alienating him from school.


Schools in the Big Picture network prioritize relationships and real-world relevance in learning, letting students drive their academics based on individual interests. It’s a small school environment, which facilitates the deep relationships formed between adults and students in the building, and is also more flexible because of its mission to honor individual passions. And the focus on passion-based projects doesn’t stop with students; staff are encouraged to pursue their passions too.

“We were at a point where a lot of the advisers were reporting back that they had concerns about the health and wellness of the students and their ability to achieve in their academic work,” said Holly Sheehan, a former internship coordinator at Highline and one of the staff members responsible for bringing the Native Student and Family Wellness Initiative (NSFWI) to life. She is writing her master's thesis on how NSFWI affected academic outcomes for the native students involved.

The administration put resources toward a wellness center for all students in the school, most of whom come from poverty, but Sheehan wanted to also specifically provide resources for a smaller group of native students at the school. She started a Native Student Alliance that met weekly and began reaching out to anyone she could find in Seattle’s Native American community to be resources for her students.

“The students had very different amounts of exposure to their cultures,” Sheehan remembers. One student’s grandmother was the chair of the Duwamish tribe, on whose land Seattle sits. On the other end of the spectrum, another student had been adopted by a white family and knew almost nothing about her cultural heritage. When students had a space to meet, learn about one another’s cultures, meet elders from their community and find resources about their tribes, they began to prioritize their native identities in their personal learning plans, too.

Students at Big Picture schools do internships based on their interests and set individualized learning goals each quarter. Sheehan began to see students incorporating learning about their native identities into their learning goals. One student found a person in the community to teach him Cherokee, while another researched native games and brought them to peers at the school. Because Big Picture students present exhibitions about their learning, non-native peers also learned the history of Seattle and Washington tribes they’d never known before.

Angelo Baca helped start and run the NSFWI at Highline and was a crucial role model for many of the participating students. At a presentation on how educators can respect their native students at the Big Bang conference, he told educators that many times school can be a re-traumatizing experience for native youth. The U.S. government has a history of forcing native people to assimilate, sending children to boarding schools meant to distance them from their culture, and generally leaving them behind when it comes to educational attainment. Many native students carry the weight of this history with them into school.

“If you know you have native students, you should know where they’re from,” Baca said. “Reach them as human beings first and students next.”

He says there are a lot of things educators in traditional schools can do to make school a more welcoming place for native students. One is to teach a version of history that doesn’t whitewash what happened to native people and demonize them for being on the land first. “It hurts. It’s depressing,” Baca said. “It sucks. But it’s necessary. We need to just engage that and make sure our students are getting good role modeling on that.”


Leonard Oppedisano started teaching science in the LaFayette Central School District in New York state 15 years ago. The district is contracted to provide education to kids from the Onondaga Nation, whose land is located nearby. More than a quarter of the traditional high school population is Native American. Oppedisano soon realized there were a lot of cultural differences he would need to pick up on to better understand and serve his native students.

John Gizzi is helping Kirwin Parsons to build a picnic table for the school.
John Gizzi is helping Kirwin Parsons to build a picnic table for the school. (Courtesy LaFayette Big Picture School)

“One of the first things I realized was that in our dominant American culture eye contact is seen as sign of respect, but in this particular native culture students typically wouldn’t look you in the eye, or in some cases doing so was disrespectful,” Oppedisano said. Teachers in LaFayette typically get a short tour of the nation, meet with a clan mother and get a short lesson on the traditional historical perspective of the Onondaga Nation. But in daily school life, there are lots of ways that native students' lives as members of the Onondaga Nation conflict with the schedule and expectations of school.

Oppedisano remembers a day when one of his native students was dissecting an owl pellet. The student was just starting to get immersed in the task, excited at what he was learning, when the bell rang. He got up dejectedly to go to his next class.

“That was a very important moment because I was thinking to myself, why do we have to only think about a subject for 40 minutes and then we’re forced to stop and think about another subject?” Oppedisano said. “That’s really not how the brain works for a lot of people.”

Around the same time, the LaFayette Central School District decided to open a Big Picture school, which would focus on interest-based learning, relationships and real-world learning. Oppedisano became one of the first advisers at the school -- another name for a teacher -- and in his first class three-quarters of his 15 students were native. He began to see how the more flexible schedule, commitment to learning from mentors and freedom for students to bring themselves into the classroom aided students in their learning.

“In general we just aren’t as much as a clock-oriented culture in our school,” Oppedisano said. While there are times and places that things happen, there’s also flexibility and strong relationships between staff that allow for activities to run long if necessary. And, when native students would miss class to attend ceremonies important to their culture, they weren’t as negatively impacted.

The internship piece of the school also allowed students from the Onondaga Nation to learn in ways that have traditionally always been part of their culture. “If you look at their tradition and how many of these students were taught, they were taught how to be or how to do something by going out with people in their village and doing those things,” Oppedisano said. Students are used to learning through oral histories passed down over generations, by doing, failing, trying again and ultimately succeeding.

Oppedisano feels lucky to have learned a lot about the Onondaga Nation through his students and what they’ve chosen to share about their culture and traditions. He has learned to be patient, to allow for more silence in class, and to let students reveal pieces of themselves to him as they are ready. Many of their internships have been related to their culture, which has also given him a unique window into life in the Onondaga Nation.

One student apprenticed with the master lacrosse stick maker in his tribe, learning woodworking skills to not only make sticks but also to build his own house. Another student learned how to find and use various plants for medicinal purposes. Students have learned traditional beading, or how to make the ceremonial headdresses worn by their ancestors, or how to do traditional dances performed at ceremonies.

“In all of these situations the student reveals their interest and it’s my job, without ruining it or hijacking the project, to help them document it,” Oppedisano said. Big Picture advisers try to ensure that projects or internships have rigor by looking for five qualities: quantitative reasoning, empirical reasoning, communication, social reasoning and personal qualities. When students present their work, they talk about whether it meets these five areas.

And, since it is still a public school and students must take Regents Exams, teachers also sometimes present information students will be expected to know in more traditional ways. But Oppedisano says he still tries to make the learning relevant to the local context, talking about pollution in a local lake in biology, for example. He recommends that teachers read up on the history that’s not often taught.

“When a student sees that you know a piece of history that other history books have kind of whitewashed, then they’re a little more willing to open up,” Oppedisano said.

Working with students from the Onondaga Nation has also given Oppedisano a greater appreciation for how difficult it can be for native youth to choose to go to college. The low college-going rate among native young people is often portrayed as an access gap, which is often true, but there are good reasons a student might be afraid to go off to a big university.

“Colleges, even the smaller campuses, are large and native students are rare, so it’s extremely daunting and scary for them to leave a very close-knit community of people who get them and get shipped away to college,” Oppedisano said. And, while away at school, students miss important ceremonies, a large part of how their culture is expressed and carried forward.

Onondaga Nation leaders recognize the dilemma college represents for native youth. At a recent meeting between Onondaga chiefs and a delegation from the Rochester Institute of Technology, one chief plainly stated that what students learn at university is of no use to their life back in the nation. And conversely, the skills elders teach young people at the Nation are of no use to them at the university. “It was kind of extremely awkward, but he was speaking from the heart,” Oppedisano said.

“A native student who doesn’t spend their entire life on the reservation is kind of walking between two worlds. And when they leave for college they’re kind of choosing the other world,” he said. That is understandably a difficult decision for some students, and Oppedisano has had students who wanted to “go back to the old ways” when they graduated from high school.

The student populations at Highline Big Picture High School and LaFayette Big Picture High School are very different, with students from different tribes and traditions. But both examples show how the experience of native students is unique from other marginalized groups, although issues of trauma and poverty could overlap. Many teachers may have native kids in their classrooms and not even know it, which is why it’s important for educators to think about how they teach.

Oppedisano said if he were to boil down all that he’s learned into a few pieces of advice, he’d say the number one thing is not to teach in an ethnocentric manner. Secondly, educators can focus on giving students voice to express their identities, and take ownership over the curriculum to bring that diversity of experience into the classroom. The government is required by treaty to provide equitable education opportunities to native children through Title VII funds, but data collection on native students is poor. Baca recommends educators get in touch with their district's Title VII coordinator and push to improve the use of those funds.


On the personal level, teachers make a big difference when they create trusting relationships with students so they feel more comfortable sharing themselves. And, encouragingly, the project-based, real-world learning trends that have become more common in education writ-large could also be promising avenues to engage and motivate native youth for whom traditional education could be traumatizing.

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