It’s The Only Thing That’s Made Me Feel Accepted: Culturally Immersive Programming for Native American/ Alaska Native Students

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By Dahlton Brown

(This article is an overview of a Stanford University Interdisciplinary Honors Thesis, available for download here)

When I began my freshman year at Stanford University, I knew what I wanted; I had it all planned out. I was going to major in Native American Studies with a focus in Economic Development. That plan was based on my (naïve) assumption that all the problems in Indian Country could be solved by better economic infrastructure and fiscal independence. Now, looking back at my freshman self, I can’t help but realize just how wrong I was.

During my first two years at Stanford, I immersed myself in courses that I thought would help me realize how to develop Indian Country through economic self-sufficiency. I began working with the Native American Financial Officer’s Association (NAFOA) so that I could gain some background of learning about how tribes could better establish themselves financially. However, during my junior year of school, I started to realize there was something else I found more important. Thanks in part to my younger brother, Dahkota, and his founding of NERDS (Native Education Raising Dedicated Students, I began better understanding how the privilege of a good education is the key to Native success.

However, I will NOT discount the importance of economic development, religious freedom, language revitalization, or sovereignty in Indian Country because in all honesty, we do have a lot of areas where we can collectively better ourselves. But I realized that a good education is the key to these issues later in life. It’s no secret that Native youth suffer staggering dropout and discipline rates. Natives are also the most underrepresented group in higher education. There are dozens, if not hundreds, of articles and op-eds that point to under-funded programming, historical trauma, and inadequate curriculum as root causes of Native youth struggling through school. This begs the question: How do we make it better?

I was accepted to write my Interdisciplinary Honors Thesis through the Stanford Graduate School of Education, where I originally planned to write about “culturally responsive teaching”. I read all sorts of Geneva Gay and Gloria Ladson-Billings papers about how culturally responsive teaching has the ability to create more inclusive classrooms for under-represented communities. But I also had reservations (no pun intended) about trying to create something around culturally responsive teaching for Native American/ Alaska Native youth. We are 566 federally recognized, sovereign nations. With this identity, how could I possibly write some magical formula for teachers to follow that would serve every Native student? For that reason, I abandoned ship on that idea. But what I came up with was trying to understand what does work, instead of what doesn’t or what might work for Native youth. With access to NERDS at my fingertips, I had my study subjects and a wealth of knowledge about the operation and successes of the program.

I shifted my focus to “culturally immersive programming” and used NERDS as a model of such in order to understand what the benefits, impacts, and implications of the program were for Native youth. I was able to survey 37 Native American/Alaska Native youth about their experiences with NERDS and their attitudes towards education and school. Here is some of what I learned:

  • When asked to respond to the statement “At my school during class, Native Americans are represented in what is taught and read”, 73% of students did not feel represented. Responses from students included- “Our ancestors are represented but more often teachers speak like we no longer exist”, “Teachers never taught anything about my own CA tribe, Miwoks. They act like we all died on the Trail of Tears”, and “One of my teachers said that I was 1 out of 1,000 because Native Americans are extinct”.
  • When responding to “I have learned about my culture while at school”, 78% of students disagreed. Responses included “With Natives we are only taught that they were on the land first and that they own casinos”, “A lot of what was taught was incorrect or mislead, one-sided stories”, and “From the NERDS program, I have learned many new things from my culture”.
  • 100% of students agree, “NERDS is a positive representation of Native Americans”. Some of their responses were “NERDS involves all Native students, no matter what blood quantum or skin color”, “NERDS brings people together through education and culture. It creates a group of kids who are eager to learn and ready to participate in culture activities”, and “It’s the only thing that’s made me feel accepted or like an Indian and I would I would have had it starting in Jr. High when I started struggling”.

Students were also asked to provide a statement about what NERDS has meant to them since their involvement began. Below is one of the statements, which stood out for obvious reasons.

In 8th grade I was ditching school, getting in trouble all the time, my grades were terrible I had a 0.33 GPA. Nobody thought I was going to graduate, it felt like all the teachers looked down upon me, they gave up on me. Then one day my cousin Dahkota Brown pulled me aside in the hallway on the way to class and he started talking to me and he noticed my grades weren’t too good and that he noticed a lot of other Native students struggling and he had an idea. His idea was to have a study group where the kids could have the help they needed. I had 3-4 months of make up work to do in a month. We went to my classes and had my teachers give me my assignments. It seemed impossible to do just sitting there looking at the huge stacks of paper. Dahkota and his mom Toni pulled me out of study hall every day and they would help me with whatever needed to be done. I had it all done by the due date and not only did I get to experience graduating 8th grade, I graduated with a 3.8GPA. I felt so proud of myself and I couldn’t thank my cousins enough for being there supporting me and helping me every step of the way. This helped me realize anything is possible if you set your mind to it.

Dahkota and the rest of NERDS like to think of this student’s testimony as the NERDS “Creation Story”. But what stands out is that this student was able to succeed with a little bit of advocacy and support during his time in school from NERDS.

Much of what NERDS does is provide a during and after-school support through a network of Native peers and mentors that serve as allies in an educational setting. There is nothing special or magical about what NERDS does. That is exactly why it is SO special. By bringing together Native youth of all backgrounds, it allows them the opportunity to connect with one another and create a safe space for learning and growing. By also incorporating community service with local Native tribes and organizations, it allows students to get hands-on cultural experience that is lacking in their formal education settings.

With my obvious bias towards the efficacy of NERDS at this point, I will say that there are plenty of opportunities for Native youth to engage with one another.  Currently, President Obama’s White House Tribal Youth Gathering shows great promise towards bringing together a nation of Native American/ Alaska Native youth who care about creating a brighter future for themselves and their peers.

In closing, it’s important that I recognize those who helped me put this study together: NERDS, the Amador County Unified School District, and every single student who participated in my study. (Also a huge shout-out to the Center for Native American Youth for their support of Native American/Alaska Native youth across the country.)

Okasi (Thank You).

My full thesis “Culturally Immersive Programming for Native American/ Alaska Native Students” can be found at this link.