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What Educators Need to Understand to Fully Support Native Students

Note: Jacqueline Keeler is a Diné/Dakota writer living in Portland, Oregon. Her writing has appeared in The Nation, NBC News, The New York Times, and many other publications. Keeler has been interviewed on PRI’s The World, BBC, MSNBC, and Democracy Now.

Her work is primarily nonfiction, including the recently released Standing Rock, the Bundy Movement, and the American Story of Sacred Lands and Edge of Morning: Native Voices Speak for the Bears Ears. However, she is working now on her first work of fiction, a Native American coming-of-age novel called Leaving the Glittering World set on the Columbia River amidst the discovery of an ancient 10,000-year-old skeleton and sacred lands becoming nuclear wastelands. She recently discussed with Vernier what educators need to understand to fully support Native students. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.


I think the most important thing for educators to understand is the impact of stereotypes on Native youth. There was a study done by Dr. Stephanie Fryberg, who is a citizen of the Tulalip Nation. She has found that when Native students are exposed to Native mascots, it lowers their self-esteem—and it lowers their ability to believe that they can achieve their dreams. Basically, when you see yourself dehumanized, how do you view your ability to engage in a society that views you that way? How do you become a part of it? 

What really helped me as a young person was being raised in a Native family. A lot of US policies have focused on separating Native families (i.e., children from their parents) as a way to “kill the Indian but save the man.” That was the idea behind Native American boarding schools in the 19th century and into the 20th century. 

These schools also sought to break up the Indian mass—the cultural mass—so young people weren’t taught traditional ideas. They were also deprived of the tools of their own culture to understand themselves, including language. 

I was raised off the reservation. My parents are from two different tribes, and they are both college educated, so my situation was different. What really helped me were the positive stories from our communities. 

What really helped me were the positive stories from our communities. What also helped me was learning things about my own family.

What also helped me was learning things about my own family. Luckily, my father’s family—my grandmother’s family in particular—were writers. For example, my grandmother’s cousin was Vine Deloria Jr. In 1969, he wrote the book Custer Died for Your Sins: An Indian Manifesto. 

In addition, my great-great aunt Ella Deloria wrote a lot of books. She studied under Franz Boas at Columbia University in 1915, and she worked with him for decades doing on-the-ground ethnographic research on our reservations up in the Dakotas and Montana. She wrote a great book, Dakota Autobiographies, and it’s a tremendous resource. 

So, those stories that came down directly through my family, and also oral stories, gave me a different picture—a more complete picture. 

We talk a lot about Black Joy and Black Excellence now as a counter to the trauma. I think it’s very important to remember that in the Native American context, as well.

We talk a lot about Black Joy and Black Excellence now as a counter to the trauma. I think it’s very important to remember that in the Native American context, as well. Often, the way stories are told—particularly by well-meaning white people—is, “Oh, Indians got on the reservation, and they just gave up or didn’t succeed.” Well, that’s actually not the story that happened. 

And so, it’s important to understand the story far more fully and be able to present that story in a way that is helpful to young people. On one hand, they need to know the ferocity of the ongoing occupation of their homelands. But on the other hand, they need to have the ability to have hope. 

There are tribal members who have done amazing things, and young people need to become familiar with their achievements.

There are tribal members who have done amazing things, and young people need to become familiar with their achievements. There are a lot of resources out there, like the American Indian Science and Engineering Society, that can tell you more about the history of a particular community. Young people really need to know how Native Americans have succeeded.


For more information on ways to support Native students, check out the National Indian Education Association and the National Congress of American Indians. Resources are also available from Education Week and WestEd.

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