Nawayee Center School: A Conversation with Joe Rice

Q&A   04 February 2020
By Joe Rice, Nawayee Center School


How we look at learning, life, community, and healing sets us free. It encourages kids to become truly brilliant, rather than just well-trained.

Joe Rice
Executive Director

Q: What path led you to working as the Executive Director of Nawayee Center School? 

Joe: I’ve been a licensed teacher since 1984, and I taught in South Dakota for 17 years. Over time, I knew I wanted to work within a system that was a bit more enlightened, and I didn’t see the opportunity in South Dakota itself.

At the turn of the century, I heard from a friend about this alternative school in Minneapolis that was looking for an Executive Director. After reviewing the role and the school’s philosophy, I knew this was the opportunity I had always dreamed about. I was accepted into the position and began my work in July 2001, at which point Nawayee Center School (Center School for short) was trending back toward a mainstream educational style. From my experience, it isn’t uncommon to see “alternative” programs cycle back toward conventional programming over time. This work is hard to sustain.

When I first arrived, I worked at not only making the content more culturally relevant but also instituting and allowing for a more culturally relevant pedagogy—a culturally contextualized educational setting. Around 10 years ago, we really started getting a handle on things, and we’ve just been slowly improving every year.

Q: When you say “alternative” school, you are referencing something far beyond the narrow scope through which many people view the idea of  “alternative” within the public education space. What does “alternative” mean to you?

Joe: Maybe the phrase would be a “better alternative.” In terms of mainstream thinking, especially where I taught in Rapid City, alternative simply meant taking a group of troublesome kids and putting them in a different building. They meant an alternative site.

What I think of as “alternative” relates to content, pedagogy, and community. Alternative means we also can think about and continually adjust what we are learning together as a community. We’re not just learning content (e.g. math, language arts, social studies). We’re also learning about culture, trauma, and healing. We’re learning about Indigenous spirituality and worldview—what we call life-ways. 

About 1% of the United States population is Indigenous. And, even fewer really understand Indigenous life-ways. It’s so fundamentally different from the very linear, easy-to-measure paradigm of mainstream American life. Indigenous life-ways are something most people don’t experience but, I believe, desperately need. 

How we look at learning, life, community, and healing sets us free. It encourages kids to become truly brilliant, rather than just well-trained. This doesn’t discount the importance of problem solving and knowing information. Of course we want that for kids. But, we want much more. We want people to be able to create, intuit, and dream.

We need these higher levels of thinking and being. We want our kids to be brilliant in that way, so that they are able to live in real time—adjusting to life in a meaningful way and helping make the world a better place.

Q: What would you say was the main cause of Nawayee Center School creeping back into conventional practices?

Joe: Growing up in America, the Indigenous life-ways are non-existent for most people. Even if you are Indigenous, just being immersed in mainstream culture makes it very easy to return to conventional, mainstream thinking. It makes sense. We know one of the best ways to teach about culture and languages is to immerse ourselves in them. And, that’s how we engage our kids in connecting with their culture, language, and traditions. On the other hand, in society at-large, everybody is immersed in this alien culture—alien to what it means to be human—where everything is measurable and finite. 

The vision of education has not changed in 150 years. You know, it’s very industrial. Schools are seen as basically factories where the kids are the widgets being produced. It’s not just schools. We see it everywhere we look. When we hear political discussions, when we watch talk shows, when we watch TV, when we see movies, when we watch stand-up comedy—most of the time, it’s the same old stuff. Everyone is completely immersed in this kind of thinking and being. 

Given the weight of all that, it’s very easy to understand why there has to be a very conscious and focused effort to operate Indigenously.

Q: How does a young person contend with being introduced to this richer, fuller understanding of Indigenous life-ways, while being surrounded by mainstream culture 24/7? How do they find a sense of balance?

Joe: Most of our kids are Indigenous, and they have some familiarity with life-ways, even if they aren’t currently living that way with their families. It varies. You have some people who are more assimilated to American society and others who never wanted to assimilate. The life-way that was imposed on Indigenous peoples is often considered immoral. The Indigenous life-ways teaches us that it’s wrong to treat each other, the planet, and even the universe this way. It goes from foolish to outright wrong, depending on how you look at it. 

I once had somebody say to me, “You can’t go back to the old ways; you have to be realistic.” I would counter with saying there are no old ways. There’s a way to live with others, our planet, and the universe. If we live in opposition to those ways, we end up with many of the problems we face today. When our water, air, and food supply are at risk, we’re doing something wrong. 

One of the things I think that the kids see here is that they’re getting something they intuitively want, and a big piece of that is a sense of empowerment. Many young people feel something’s wrong with our mainstream life-ways. And, the idea that they can actively resist, even if it’s just by treating themselves, their families, and their communities better, is pretty attractive.


Ultimately, people want to be happy and people want to feel like there are solutions that will help improve the quality of their lives.

Joe Rice
Executive Director

Defiance is always something young people are attracted to. And, if loving oneself and being happy is an act of defiance, then so be it. Young people will see they have a lot of work to do, but they also know it’s very doable. At Center School, they are immersed in learning how to do just that.

One of the things that happens is not only Native kids come here and value this way of learning and being, but we have non-Native kids who appreciate it, too. This applies to more than those who attend Center School. We put together an online database of best practices associated with an Indigenous education and shared it with people in the area. One of the things we found out was even educators who applied it within mainstream schools found the practices were successful and the kids really enjoyed engaging with them.

Ultimately, people want to be happy and people want to feel like there are solutions that will help improve the quality of their lives. Even if it’s just improving what’s in your own heart and head. If you can make that space better to live in, who wouldn’t like that?

Q: What is it about Nawayee Center School’s culture that shows young people they are entering a space that will provide a learning experience that serves their needs and interests?

Joe: The first thing is comfort. Indigenous peoples are very in-tune with the power of relatedness and relationships. So, how do we relate to things? Not just how do we relate to other humans, but how do we relate to our other relatives? We don’t refer to trees, the ground, or rocks as things. Those are our relatives. 

When you encompass everything as a relative, then there are no others. It’s not okay to burn ants on the sidewalk or slaughter a bunch of people in a theater with a machine gun. When all life is valued, it’s a very different paradigm and a very different environment that you live in.

When building a school culture based on enjoyable, quality relationships, comfort and safety follow. And, people pick up on that when they come here. We have some of what you might call magic—I like to say magic is science that people don’t understand. Part of that magic is we have ceremonies that provide spiritual protections for the school. 

We have a couple of items in the building that maintain those spiritual relationships, so when people come in, the first thing they tell us is they can feel it. Now, they don’t say they feel the spirits. Rather, they say it feels very welcoming, comfortable, and warm here. Even though in the linear world, there is no evidence for spirits, if you live in a world where people understand that they are real—regardless of what words we use to describe them—then there is a lot of influence on how we choose to create the environments we learn and teach in.


If you understand that the challenges you face are also opportunities, then a happier and more fruitful life is available to you.

Joe Rice
Executive Director

When we make decisions as individuals and as a learning community, we think about what effect those decisions will have on the spirit of the building. This is a type of thinking that has been going on within our culture for 100,000 years. When looking at Indigenous best practices, people sometimes ask, “Where’s the evidence? Where’s the research?” Well, when a community has been marginalized to the degree that ours has, very little modern day research is done. But, I emphasize how long our culture has been experimenting with these practices. We have 100,000 years of keeping what works and discarding what doesn’t. The fact that we’re doing it this way today means that it has worked—and in many instances, has worked for a really long time.

When asked about research, that’s one of the answers I give. The fact that we are here in spite of everything that has been done to Indigenous peoples is the evidence. It’s not a very satisfying answer to some people, but I love giving it.

Q: What do you wish you were asked more often about the work happening at Nawayee Center School?

Joe: I wish that more people would just ask. I wish more people were aware of what we’re doing here. I think when we write proposals and ask for help, people don’t really understand what’s going on here or why it’s important. They struggle to see us as anything more than a school. 

But, this is very different. It’s a really specialized work that has the potential to benefit large numbers of people. It’s something that can be grown and considered well beyond our community of learners. And, it can be grown to benefit future generations. The lack of knowledge many people have about this place is a very limiting factor. 

That being said, we’re able to stretch our money many ways. We collaborate with many community partners that are involved in improving the greater health of the community. We get huge benefits from building community because it ultimately improves the health of everyone. If we hope to make education better, there are answers rooted in the power of relatedness out there. 

One of the questions I often get from young people is: “What is the meaning of life?” And, many people think there isn’t an answer to that question. I disagree. There are answers. And, the answer I’m most fond of is that there is no meaning of life. Rather, life is an opportunity to create meaning. 

If you listen and observe, the answers are right there in front of you. Everything that you’re exposed to is there to help you learn, get stronger, heal whatever it is you need healed, and more. If you understand that, if you understand that the challenges you face are also opportunities, then a happier and more fruitful life is available to you.

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