As a brand new teacher, I thought I had the tools I needed to teach any students, any place I found a job. But it only took a month for me in my first licensed teaching position at Two Eagle River School, a tribal alternative school on the Flathead Reservation in Montana, to learn that I was woefully underprepared to address the students I was to serve.
I decided to assign Forrest Carter’s The Education of Little Tree. I deemed it a touching and culturally relevant book. My assigned aide gently informed me that no, this novel and its author had been debunked as frauds. The “Indian” content was phony, and I’d be better off choosing a different title.
I was horrified. As a middle-class white female from the East Coast, I knew absolutely nothing about reservations or tribal culture. After Little Tree, I suddenly realized how little I knew about the community that surrounded me: the homeland of the Salish, Kootenai and Pend d’Oreille people plus all the tribal neighbors and others who had come to call this reservation home. The Bureau of Indian Affairs (now Bureau of Indian Education) contract school had a cultural focus and instantly exposed the gaps in my own knowledge base. There were many gaps, and they were large.
I quickly learned that some tribal families hold deep and unresolved misgivings about public education and a historic mistrust of schools in general due to forced European-style schooling. One parent told me, for example, how his parents hid him when the government men came around so he wouldn’t be nabbed and carted off to boarding school.
In a more pointed experience, a student once said to the air between us, “How come this white lady is teaching me?”
I learned that a student might have a traditional surname but not know a thing about his heritage, and also that a student might have blond hair and green eyes but travel the powwow circuit all summer dancing traditional style. Kids at that school loved rap music and spoken word poetry. They might have been rural reservation students, but they also identified with urban American youth.
Checking my notions and expectations
After four years, I left the alternative school for a public school on the southern part of the reservation where I had moved, a school that served mainly Indian but also non-Indian students. Thirteen years later, I’m still learning – but now I know enough to impart some of my own lessons to non-Indians who teach or wish to teach on a reservation, or otherwise serve tribal youth. Here is some of what I’ve learned along the way.
First, check your notions and expectations at the school door. Many new teachers enter reservation schools with their own ideas of education: how students should act, how parents should respond, how schools should operate. In general, these preconceptions are based on the teachers’ own experiences as students.
Since most teachers are non-Indian, their experiences do not usually reflect the culture of the students they will be teaching. Instead, actively take the position of learner. Humble yourself before the community you will serve, so that you allow yourself to be taught; you will expect to make mistakes and appreciate the corrections you receive.
You might, for example, find that some parents would rather meet you at the local community center than in your classroom.
You might learn that some parents won’t tell you directly that you have a habit of standing too close to their child, so they’ll ask another teacher they trust to relay the message to you.
You will find out that when several students have missed fifteen days of school, it’s because funerals in Indian country occur frequently, last long, and often involve entire communities. Parental involvement and student attendance may not match those of your own experience, but as a guest in their community you must respect and work to understand those differences.
Making mistakes, appreciating corrections
The essence of culturally responsive teaching is meeting students where they are, instead of expecting them to meet you where you think they should be. In a reservation school, this task can be more complicated than a new teacher might expect.
There is a common phrase among American Indians when describing their own experience of navigating the white world while retaining their customs: walking in two worlds. New reservation teachers also have to learn to walk in two worlds: their own, and the world belonging to their new community.
Learning to walk in two worlds is, for some new reservation teachers, a significant challenge. It means not that we try to assimilate into the tribal community, for we will always be outsiders there, but that we try to understand that community in order to serve it better. It also humbles us. My Little Tree experience showed me that there was a world outside my own, and I needed to become very familiar with it without trying to remake our students’ education after my own experiences by teaching “the white way” or ignoring tribal customs.
To be honest, 17 years later, I am still growing. I continue to make mistakes and learn from them. I still ask for tribal experts to inform me. But I realized I had turned a corner when, in 2014, I received the Distinguished Educator Award by the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, in recognition of exceptional work with tribal youth.
This award doesn’t say, “You’ve learned everything you need to know,” but rather “you are trying, and that counts for a lot.” It represents not a pinnacle, but an important milestone.
The rewards of teaching on a reservation are great: watching students spend their lunch time drumming and singing traditional songs, learning about ceremonies from them, and seeing them move on to higher education or successful employment.
But one of greatest rewards is the moment you suddenly realize you are walking in both worlds. Then, you experience a sense of welcome from the community, which has been waiting there for you all along.