Failing Native American students: Let me count the ways

In nearly 30 years teaching and consulting on American Indian reservations, I’ve seen a dismaying number of failures to provide a good education.

In the movie, Mask, the mother of a boy with a noticeable physical disfigurement is trying to register him for middle school. The principal says, 

Perhaps a different school would be better suited to his needs.

To which the mother responds, 

Do you teach Biology, English and Algebra at your school? Because those are his needs.

I once asked someone, who will remain nameless to protect the clueless, to select some examples of useful educational resources for reservation schools and she sent me clip art with a few images of buffaloes and feathers with the suggestion that teachers could include these images in their Powerpoints when they were explaining a math problem or on their worksheets of division problems. 

Seriously? That’s what you’ve got? Feathers on the worksheet?

As an example of what I had in mind, in Spirit Lake: The Game , the player encounters rabid wolves and has to climb a tree to escape. (Random fact: Do you know why rabid wolves are so dangerous? Because they are extremely aggressive when they have rabies, will bite multiple people and, before the rabies vaccine, this was almost always fatal.) A math problem pops up asking the player how many arrows Hoksinato needs to shoot the 7 wolves if he only hits a wolf an average of once every 5 times. After all, being just a boy, he misses a lot. If the player answers ’12’, the screen below pops up, asking if you are maybe using addition instead of multiplication.

Hint when student uses wrong operation

If the player answers correctly, the game continues with shooting the wolves and then going into the woods to look for herbs.

selecting the correct number of herbs in the woods
Success! I found the herbs. Unfortunately, I picked the wrong number

In the scene above, I picked the wrong number of herbs and when I take these back to the village, there will be some puking from too much medicine. It turns out that elementary students are amused by puking.

As our cultural consultant Dr. Longie famously said, 

The Dakota have always used math. 

How do you think people calculated the time it would take to get to a specific location to meet another tribe or family members? When making medicine, people didn’t randomly throw in herbs, they estimated the amount per person. 

Obviously, these are only a couple of examples and I focused on math because that’s what I taught and what I know best. My point here, that you have no doubt despaired of me having, is that Native American education needs to include education that sets students up for algebra, biology and 9th grade English. It’s more than slapping a feather on your worksheets, but it’s also not all that hard. 

Math or death
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