Native spaces don’t just happen. They need to be created and sustained.
“Education strengthens our people.”
With the help of local elder Arlita Rhoan, this idea was adopted as the motto for the Sapsik'ʷałá Education Program at the University of Oregon (UO). This same idea provided the foundation of a May 2 gathering at the University of Washington to advance the conversation about Native teacher education, understand its challenges and explore opportunities for Native resurgence.
During the event, sponsored by the Indigenous Education Initiatives and the Banks Center for Educational Justice of the UW College of Education, speakers from Native teacher education cohort programs at the UO and University of Arizona (UA) shared insights from their partnership with tribal communities. Watch the event in its entirety below or on YouTube.
Michelle Jacob, a professor of Indigenous studies and director of the UO program, discussed the crucial role held by elder-educators in Indigenous communities. Native learning traditions are intergenerational, she said, and removing that context from a classroom fails to center indigenous ways of teaching and learning that are essential to building identity and community.
Valerie Shirley, assistant professor of Indigenous education and co-director of UA’s Indigenous Teacher Education Project, said the gathering positioned herself and the other speakers in relation to the work they do — incorporating traditional knowledge, stories, languages, ceremonies and other aspects of Indigenous education — in their universities and helping teacher candidates learn to do the same in their classrooms.
“Education strengthens tribal communities,” Jacob said, “But all students deserve Indigenous teachers because everyone benefits from Indigenous education.”
Among the benefits described by Shirley and fellow UA faculty member and co-director Jeremy Garcia are a critical awareness of history and its continuing effect on the present as well as a greater understanding of the living cultures behind individuals.
The UO, a predominantly white university, unintentionally presents barriers to Indigenous students hoping to enter the program, according to assistant professor of Indigenous studies and Sapsik'ʷałá Education Program faculty member Leilani Sabzalian. For instance, a gatekeeping exam with an 11 percent pass rate begins a fence of racial bias that continues through to the Education Teacher Performance Assessment (edTPA).
The EdTPA in Oregon “requires teacher candidates to demonstrate they have the skills needed to help all students learn,” but it doesn’t take into account what curriculum might look like when activated critically from an Indigenous consciousness.
“When we’re reclaiming space within larger institutions, it’s worth the grind,” Sabzalian said.
The examples she gave of students making change in their educational circles highlighted the bittersweet nature of creating “firsts.” Joy for the growing opportunities but sorrow that it’s only now happening.
For UW community members in attendance, the gathering provided an opportunity to collectively learn from the other programs as efforts continue to develop at the UW such as the Native Education Certificate Program for practicing educators. The principles of the UW program mirror those of the other universities, such as a focus on collaboration with peers and tribal leaders and identity development for Native learners.
Another goal of the certificate program is to prepare teachers to create and implement environments that respect and engage with Native students’ culture, traditions and experiences, something that Jacob reflected on in her remarks.
“Native spaces don’t just happen,” Jacob noted. “They need to be created and sustained.”
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