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Should a White Woman Be Teaching Native Students about Their Culture?
This week Pass The Chalk features posts from contributors who learn, teach and work in Native communities in honor of Native American Heritage Month.
There are days when I think every problem in my classroom would be solved if I were Lakota. I would have the authority to teach the Lakota concept of mitakuye oyasin, which means that we are all related, as a means of reducing bullying. I would be able to speak to my students about the reality that they can attend college, but also the struggles they will inevitably face in leaving their families and the reservation. I could solve problems from the classroom inside a sweat lodge.
When I was accepted into Teach For America, I was confident in my abilities to fit in within my community and incorporate Lakota culture in the classroom. I had a solid background in the history of the area. I grew up on a buffalo ranch in western South Dakota, on the border of the Pine Ridge Reservation, and studied Lakota history extensively throughout college. I brought with me a wealth of knowledge from my previous reservation experiences and my academic studies.
So during my first year, I built my classroom around Lakota culture. The rules we operated by were the Lakota virtues of respect, bravery, perseverance, and generosity. We studied “Leaders of the Week” who were frequently Lakotas who had overcome challenges they faced growing up on reservations across the state. We celebrated our own student “Leader of the Week,” Wicasa Itancan, named after the Lakota idea of a civil leader, someone who is higher ranking than a warrior, and one of the most respected individuals of the tribe.
On paper, I was “culturally responsive.” I was exposing my students to Lakota culture and history in a positive way—a way that celebrated who they were and where they came from. In reality, I was simply incorporating certain concepts of Lakota culture into my classroom, without thoroughly explaining why I was doing it, and where it came from. My success was limited. My students did not yet know me, or understand why a White woman was so proud and excited to teach them about their own history and culture.
One day in early spring, I engaged an angry student about his negative attitude in class that day. “You’re not being a leader,” I said. “You are not following the Lakota virtues, or showing perseverance.”
He broke down, and for the first time, a relatively quiet, albeit sullen teenager, screamed at me. “Stop using my culture against me,” he charged. “You don’t know what you’re talking about.”
I was stunned. Didn’t he know that I had studied Lakota history for years? I had lived on the reservation before. I was not some wide-eyed transplant to the Great Plains. I was a South Dakotan. I had learned everything I brought into my classroom from my Lakota mentors. I knew my information was correct.
To my student, however, I had been the most superficial example of a culturally responsive teacher. I had taught him all about Lakota leaders, and forced him to memorize all nine reservations in the State of South Dakota. Still, I had failed to convey two of the most important Lakota values: modesty and respect. I had not taken the time to learn about him or his relationship with his culture. I had not taken time to earn his respect. And in a culture where elders hold the knowledge and are the storytellers, I had not proven that I was worthy of teaching him his history and culture.
This is a dilemma that many corps members teaching on reservations face. Should we, the majority of whom are not Native and from other parts of the country, teach a culture and history with which we are largely unfamiliar? And even if we agree that Native culture should be a part of our students’ education, can we ever really understand it well enough to teach it?
In the past two years, I have come to an important conclusion: I am a professional teacher. I may be a guilty South Dakotan, who cannot think of educational inequity in our State without linking it to the history of Lakota-White relations, but I am also a trained teacher. It is my responsibility to engage my students on the history and culture of this area, even if that means that I misstep and encounter awkward moments in my classroom.
This year, I continue to teach “Leaders of the Week.” I remain hesitant about teaching students their tribal history, and cultural values like bravery and generosity. But I know that my students deserve to learn the history and culture of their people, even if I am not the utmost authority on the topic.
I hold onto the hope that one day, my students will return to this district with their college degrees and be the ones to pass on their knowledge and traditions to the next generation of Lakota students. And when this fusion between Lakota culture and best teaching practices converges, we will see the face of Native education in South Dakota change for the better.
Morandi Hurst was born in Santa Monica, California, and raised in the Black Hills of South Dakota. She graduated from Vassar College in 2010, where she majored in History. While in college, she interned at the Center for American Indian Research and Native Studies in Martin, South Dakota, where she assisted in workshops on teaching Lakota history and culture. After graduating, she returned to her home state, where she became a paraprofessional in the Todd County School District on the Rosebud Reservation. The following year she joined Teach For America as a 2011 Corps Member and currently teaches 4th-8th grade literacy and social studies at Spring Creek School.