Amplifying culture

The College of Education’s Indigenous Education Initiatives center Native/Indigenous ways of knowing


This year, when students in the Wellpinit School District on the Spokane Indian Reservation learn science, or leadership, or history, the curricula they follow will have a direct connection to their own Tribal traditions and history.

Social distancing permitting, Wellpinit students will take field trips to places of cultural significance for their Tribe. Community members will visit classrooms to share Tribal-specific knowledge, melding academic standards to cultural practices like harvesting and weaving traditional tule mats, the lifecycle of salmon and the interdependencies of local ecosystems.

“We wanted to strengthen our culturally responsive and culturally relevant teaching,” said Apolonio Hernandez, Wellpinit’s demonstration grant project director, who, along with Jennifer LeBret (Spokane), director of the Spokane Tribes Native Youth Community Project and Wellpinit's Indigenous curriculum director, contributed to the new Spokane Tribal Lifeways curricula. “We were looking for a partner to help center us and to help us think critically about what that really meant and looked like.”

That partner was the UW College of Education’s Native Education Certificate program — the centerpiece of the College’s recently formed Indigenous Education Initiatives (IEI), comprised by Associate Professor Filiberto Barajas-López (P’urhépecha) and fellow faculty members Dawn Hardison-Stevens (Omushkeg Cree, Ojibway, Cowlitz, Steilacoom), Anthony Craig (Yakama), Emma Elliott-Groves (Cowichan) and Dana Arviso (Diné).

Centering Tribal knowledge

Wellpinit enrolled a total of 29 educators in the very first cohort of the two-year certificate program — comprising more than 50 percent of the first cohort’s participants. The group started their studies in 2016 and received their certificates in 2018.

“The team was composed of many different folks and system partners,” Hernandez said. “We had non-Native teachers from the school district, community elders, community members, Tribal department staff, and educators from the early learning center — it really was a well-rounded group of people brought together to better center Spokane practices into their learning environments.”

Barajas-López said a prime focus of the certificate program is to help educators on all levels, like Wellpinit’s team, learn how to connect and engage with local Native communities. Another focus is changing the conversation about where and how learning should happen for Native kids.

"IEI is taking an approach of true partnership and solidarity. Rather than what can be a common western approach of the academy being seen as the carriers and transmitters of knowledge, IEI believes that for us to be of service to communities, we have to listen, learn and flex to approaches that are centered in the community."

Anthony Craig (Yakama)
Director and Professor of Practice
Leadership for Learning, EdD program

“There’s a history of engaging with western school systems that hasn’t produced very positive outcomes and experiences for Native communities,” Barajas-López said. “We know Native youth confront immense pressure to conform to a western system — but how about we center Native perspectives and amplify the role of Native culture, language and identity in the work?”

Hernandez said that, besides the new curricula, the Wellpinit District added another significant element to its system after the certificate program.

“One really great thing that happened is that now our instructors are out there working with the community and a position was created after the certificate program to support centering Spokane Tribal ways of knowing,” Hernandez said.

“It has really helped our teachers and other educators in the system partner with community differently.”

"It is my hope that the IEI can continue to develop and strengthen the relationships that the College of Education has with Tribal communities in the area. In order to do this, we need to collaboratively develop agendas that serve the needs of our Indigenous communities from their own perspectives."

Emma Elliott-Groves (Cowichan)
Assistant Professor 

Building on momentum

“It’s important to note that all the momentum for this work that we’re now calling the IEI is built on previous work by Native faculty members here at the College — Megan Bang and Beth West,” Barajas-López said. “They, along with Dr. Dawn Hardison-Stevens and Dr. Emma Elliot-Groves, spent a lot of time building important relationships with different Tribal communities and Native education leaders throughout the state and country.”

Their departure from the College left a big vacuum, Barajas-López said. But the momentum they’d created got a boost when the College’s 2018 faculty retreat was led by Native educators from all over Washington, who taught faculty in an immersive setting about Native issues and history.

“That was a very powerful experience that helped faculty members — and everyone in the College — to begin to think about our collective responsibility to the original inhabitants of these lands,” Barajas-López said. “It helped reframe how folks think about their work in education.”

The commitment to centering Native education and connecting it to the College’s mission, he noted, has opened up other kinds of very powerful conversations and actions.

“And it’s not just a few folks. It’s science education, math education, climate change education,” Barajas-López said. “I know there are faculty members here who are engaged in all that work directly with Tribal communities — which is something that didn’t exist 10 years ago.”

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New perspectives on engagement

Hernandez said he believes the certificate program would be equally beneficial to teachers, administrators, school board members and anyone else who seeks to work effectively in Native education.

“As a non-Tribal member, it really helped me think about how I engage with our Tribal community,” Hernandez said. “I’m not coming in with solutions. Tribes already have the solutions. So how are we changing our assumptions as non-Tribal members? How are we allowing communities to take the lead and center their ideas?”

According to LeBret, the program is helpful to Tribal members as well.

“I grew up on the reservation,” LeBret said. “For me, the program changed my perspective on the way I interacted with non-Tribal members, how we bridged the gap to the community, and the language that we used to facilitate conversations between the two of them.”

“This collaboration brings Indigenous peoples together sharing how we have always been scientists, mathematicians, keepers of stories and histories, environmentalists, foresters … working with the land knowing all things on Earth are our teachers.”

Dawn Hardison-Stevens (Omushkeg Cree, Ojibway, Cowlitz, Steilacoom)
Program Manager
Native Education Certificate Program

LeBret said the culturally-centered curriculum, although new to their context, seems poised to have a positive impact on students.

“When we piloted the lessons in classrooms, we could see how the students were more engaged when you bring in community members and talk about things that are more relevant to them. They wanted to know when we’d be back to do another lesson. In general, they all really liked the lessons and wanted more.”

“Our Native/Indigenous kids are going to be in these schools — so what if we begin to shape what that space looks like?” Barajas-López said. “I think in many of these big school systems that are beginning to talk about family engagement, it’s going to move them beyond community members coming to meetings or showing up to parent night. We need to ask what families can contribute, what communities can contribute to education as a necessity for thriving Native/Indigenous communities.

“One of the things I always say is that we can’t begin to think about equity and justice in education unless we’re accountable to our local Native communities. It’s contradictory to say you’re working for equity and social justice if you’re not doing it for the local Native communities first.”

For more information regarding IEI and NECP email Professor Filiberto Barajas-López.

A constellation of work

The focus on Native/Indigenous issues is set to grow

While the Native Education Certificate Program is the centerpiece of the College of Education’s Indigenous Education Initiatives (IEI), “a constellation of other work” is in varying stages and will grow in importance over time, said IEI Director Filiberto Barajas-López. IEI’s overall goal is to greatly expand the College of Education’s capacity to better serve Native communities throughout these territories.

This year IEI will continue its "Native/Indigenous Community Scholar Series," which highlights the work of local, regional, national and international Native/Indigenous education leaders. IEI also will launch an Elders-in-residence program that directly engages local/regional Native educational leaders with Native/Indigenous students and faculty through intergenerational learning.

Indigenous Education Advisory Board

The IEAB consists of more than two dozen educational leaders, representing more than 20 Tribes from the Northwest and beyond. Originally formed to advise the Native Education Certificate Program, the IEAB has taken on an expanded role of advising the College on all aspects of engagement with Native communities and students.

Teacher Education

All College of Education teacher candidates now receive training in the “Since Time Immemorial: Tribal Sovereignty in Washington State” curriculum, covering Tribal perspectives relevant to all 29 federally recognized Tribes in Washington. Barajas-López said teacher candidates also have significant opportunities to connect to local Tribes.

“It’s a great start. It’s not only more than others are doing, but it also sets up teachers to think differently about their work and their commitment to local Native communities.”

Tribal Leaders Congress on Education

IEI has had a presence representing the College in the Tribal Leaders Congress and contributing to the development of a coordinated agenda to support Washington state Nations enact sovereignty in education on behalf of Native communities.

UW Center for American Indian and Indigenous Studies

The College of Education maintains close ties with the UW Center for American Indian Studies and Indigenous Studies, Barajas-López said.

“They came into existence to coordinate work with Tribal communities University-wide. We’re a part of that network. While they work primarily to support Native students at the UW, our focus is on relationships with K-12 educators inside and outside Tribal communities.”