It’s really important to have an Indigenous Education model because the wisdom of those individuals doesn’t always fit within conventional credentialing processes for teachers, school leaders, or system leaders. We need to create tribal credentialing of knowledge and language keepers.
President, The One Gen Fund
Q: What would a community-based ecosystem of learning make possible for Indigenous communities?
Kara: The idea of creating an ecosystem is a natural extension of what was already in place prior to institutions coming into communities, setting themselves up, and imposing a Westernized approach to education on our youth. So, I feel like this would be an opportunity to create something that’s really grounded in the values, culture, and opportunities within a given land base or community.
Native American Nations, Indigenous communities, and families, across the United States, are deepening our focus on the preservation and growth of Indigenous language programs. We’re connecting more intentionally with the land and utilizing land-based learning as a strategy for better understanding our culture and engaging different types of content. For example, using Indigenous language and knowledge to understand traditional farming and agricultural practices that served as a source for more healthy foods than what we have easy access to today.
We already have a connection to Indigenous communities across the country. We already have a call to revive and build out a focus on Indigenous language and culture. And, we’re gaining a better understanding of what sovereignty really means within tribal communities and the freedom to actually build something outside of a conventional school model, whether that’s in the K-12 public education system, a Bureau of Indian Education (B.I.E.), or Tribally-Controlled Grant Schools. There’s been concerted steps taken towards achieving that.
We’re also addressing how to fully integrate Native American leaders, Indigenous educators, and elders, who possess diverse knowledge, into our public education systems to teach Indigenous languages. It’s really important to have an Indigenous Education model because the wisdom of those individuals doesn’t always fit within conventional credentialing processes for teachers, school leaders, or system leaders. We need to create tribal credentialing of knowledge and language keepers.
We acknowledge that a learning environment co-created with your community doesn’t necessarily need to be tied to one school or school building; it’s about the people within that community and engaging them in imagining what’s possible…
President, The One Gen Fund
More broadly, we’re thinking about the structures around governance and maintaining the freedom to create and co-create learning opportunities, grounded in the community, which is a very natural way of thinking about learning. While many of our Indigenous communities reside in small rural areas, there are many community partners, organizations, and individuals who can come together to unite around a central idea or shared purpose.
We acknowledge that a learning environment co-created with your community doesn’t necessarily need to be tied to one school or school building; it’s about the people within that community and engaging them in imagining what’s possible—centering on the desired learning and knowledge of students, families, and the overall community.
As an example, when we were getting the Native American Community Academy (NACA) started 15 years ago, we asked 200 community members what was most important to them. From those conversations, three priorities emerged that became foundational to our efforts: first, college attainment; second, having a secure identity; and third, cultivating holistic wellness.
Q: Can you talk a bit more about how this natural occurring ecosystem of learning was disrupted within Indigenous communities?
Kara: It’s important to understand the progression of how Indigenous Education was very seamlessly fused within communities before more Westernized institutions were forced upon Indigenous communities. In those environments, children were learning from their families and families were working together. That organically built out a community. This is helpful to refer to today as we plan and develop learning opportunities for our students that are grounded in community knowledge.
Then, as you look at the continuum, there was the introduction of a widespread, federalized effort to create boarding schools and systematically proliferate subject areas like social studies. Those schools were designed to assimilate native students by removing them from their culture and families.
Then in the fifties, sixties, and seventies, there began to emerge an incredibly limited focus on Indian education, in which native students learned, for a single period throughout their entire time in middle school and high school, information that was responsive to who they were and who their families were. And, that was only if you had an educator who thought that was important. The onset of schools such as the Rough Rock Demonstration School and Ramah Day School started the movement to return to language, culture, and community-led schools and served as some of the first models of true self-determined schools outside of any existing public education system.
But, some public education systems have continued to silo Indian Education. These examples are only a fraction of what we’re trying to move forward in Indigenous communities, regarding community-based, place-based, land-based education taught from an Indigenous perspective. Bringing that to life takes a lot more flexibility, and I think an ecosystem of learning draws on the knowledge that exists within the community that isn’t necessarily tied to a school or an institution and definitely isn’t dictated by a central source of Westernized knowledge.
Q: For those in other local land-based communities developing their own ecosystems, what can they learn from Indigenous practices, worldviews, and ways of knowing that can inform their process?
Kara: In terms of how our work can inform others, I would first say there’s a need to focus on removing silos. Things shouldn’t be fragmented because, as people, we’re not fragmented.
There’s a Navajo term called Hozho, which describes the concept of walking in beauty and having your life be holistic in nature. And, for our students and families, our hope is to establish a state of wholeness, wherein people are in balance and living fulfilled and healthy lives. That has to be at the center of holistic approaches to learning and education.
Unfortunately, some educational institutions systematically remove wholeness by putting up obstacles that separate students from who they are by forcing them to leave part of themselves at the door. This has a really negative impact on their learning, wellbeing, and life outcomes.
Second, Ke’ is the notion of how you care for and relate to one another. When we started NACA, many folks we talked to pointed to a concept that reflects the essence of different Indigenous peoples and entities in our community: relationships. We need to work towards the idea of being in balance and then use that as a natural foundation for our relationships.
When I introduce myself, I’m Kara Bobroff (Dine’/Lakota). From my mother’s side, I’m the Salt Clan and from my father’s side, I’m born for Lakota. That immediately establishes how I relate to everybody within my own community. Many times, a student says “Awesome, I am Salt clan, too!” It helps us recognize each other and know we have a relationship and share in kinship.
The notion of an ecosystem is already alive and well within many of our systems and patterns of living. And, we constantly ask learners, “How do you build upon those things in order to understand yourself?”
President, The One Gen Fund
In clans within different native communities, there’s already a process in place for how families relate to one another—for example, in terms of where we live within our land base and the connection we have to our home community.
Interrelatedness is a really important concept to consider when thinking about an ecosystem or thinking about relationships within any given community and how they can support a student’s learning. Honoring that has helped us to conceptualize and create a space where everybody has a role within our community. Just because you don’t have a degree in engineering doesn’t mean you can’t teach students Indigenous knowledge, or what you know about science, or about the different ways the knowledge of Indigenous science has developed within our communities.
And, the concept that everybody has a role plays out seasonally in our culture. When we think about the seasons and going from fall to winter, winter to spring, and spring to summer, it aligns with our whole life cycle. A lot of the knowledge we have begins from that. We understand from the time you’re born to the time you pass on is an entire journey of learning, reflecting, thinking, and planning—all connected to the land. It’s a continuous cycle that’s embedded in our sacred mountains within the Navajo culture.
The notion of an ecosystem is already alive and well within many of our systems and patterns of living. And, we constantly ask learners, “How do you build upon those things in order to understand yourself?” It’s awesome to see NACA youth stand up; introduce themselves in their own language; identify who they are in relation to one another, in terms of where they’re from; and use that information to formulate their own passion for what it is they want to learn.
Lastly, I would focus on Indigenous leadership. The organization Americans for Indian Opportunity conducted research around Indigenous leadership models and discovered Indigenous leaders, whether they’re in the United States, New Zealand, Japan, or Peru, operate from a similar set of core cultural values. We’ve passed on our cultural values in very specific ways. They are the guideposts and lenses for how we think about the world, how we make decisions, and how we reflect upon our own wellbeing and our connection to others.
There’s a lot that can be brought in when you translate that into language because conceptual knowledge is really expanded. For example, in our Lakota language class, we focus on the concept that everybody’s born with their own potential and that’s something that guides them throughout their life. In Navajo, the way that one identifies where they are from and forms a sense of relationship is essential Indigenous knowledge.
The more that we can draw upon those ideas in a variety of different cultures, and our various backgrounds that are already naturally in existence where we are, the more powerful our students’ experiences are going to be.