Story by Deb Seminary, contributing writer
In 2015, the North Dakota Department of Public Instruction (NDDPI) decided to develop more authentic materials for Native American studies. Because Native American students represent the highest minority population in our state, ten percent of K-12 enrollment, the resources needed to be unique to North Dakota.
“We wanted to provide history about the states’ tribes, making sure it was accurate,” said Lucy Fredericks, NDDPI’s Indian/Multicultural Education Director, “And, we wanted to improve Native American student outcomes in areas such as attendance and graduation rates.”
NDDPI brought together tribal elders from across North Dakota in the spring of 2015. They shared their wealth of knowledge and helped to develop the North Dakota Native American Essential Understandings (NDNAEU) that would form the basis for lesson and resource development. Elders were interviewed in videos, questions developed for each video and lessons were created. This process is ongoing.
There were regional trainings across the state for teachers, which also allowed for additional input into the program. “Some teachers may be apprehensive teaching Native American history and culture,” said Fredericks. “They may feel they are not knowledgeable and don’t want to get anything wrong. That is where the elders come in. The elders are the experts, sharing their stories. NDNAEU were designed to be embedded in what is already covered in the classroom. We also encourage teachers to reach out to their communities. There may be elders and/or parents that can help. Native and non-Native students can learn from each other.”
The ‘Teaching of our Elders’ website, which was created to house content for NDNAEU, continues to expand and evolve as interviews and resources are added. To date, there are over 350 video interviews available and 150-plus K-12 exemplar lessons in all subject areas for teachers to use in their classrooms.
One of the positive outcomes of NDNAEU was shared by Baron Blanchard, who is currently a technology and engineering teacher at the Bismarck Career Academy.
“I went to a workshop when I was teaching North Dakota Studies at Horizon Middle School a few years ago,” he said. “They talked about what South Dakota was doing and had three example lessons, and I thought, ‘I can incorporate this into my class!’ It was a huge hit for Native and non-Native students. It gave my Native students an avenue to share and gain confidence in the classroom and I was able to develop some strong relationships with some of them as a result.”
Mandan High School math teacher Dean Johs explains (in a YouTube video) how he took it upon himself to better understand the Native American culture while incorporating some of the lessons in his classroom. He initiated conversations with his Native students, and they began sharing stories and teaching him some of their Native language. They became more attentive in the classroom, scored better on tests and finished their homework more often. This interaction also prompted two Russian students to begin sharing their language and stories with him.
“All it took was me showing interest in their culture,” said Johs.
Melody Staebner, Fargo/West Fargo Indian Education Coordinator stated there has been so much positive feedback from NDNAEU.
“Not just for Native American students, it is for all students – understanding and awareness and learning from each other,” she said.
Staebner, who has been in her position for 19 years, works to provide cultural connections in and out of the classroom for students and their families throughout the year. This improves their cultural identities and self-esteem. Her program provides a wide range of services, including an Indian Education Mentor Program to ensure students graduate from high school and are prepared for college, as well as liaison support for families that may have needs at home that are not being met. She also works with outside community organizations to provide other services. For example, she is able to hire some tutors because of a grant through NDSU.
Her Indian Education Events and Programming Calendar is jam-packed with opportunities for Native students and their families. From college visits and reading programs to family cultural nights and Youth Leadership Day, Staebner works to make sure there is something for everyone. And, with over 1,000 Native American students representing over 30 tribes across the Fargo/West Fargo districts, she has a busy school year ahead.
Beginning with this school year, North Dakota Senate Bill 2304, passed in 2021, requires all elementary and secondary public and nonpublic schools in the state to include curriculum on Native American history.
“I think it’s a very good step in the right direction for the state of North Dakota – for the tribal and state partnership and advancing Indian Education for all in the school districts,” Staebner said.
Having the NDNAEU resources available, through all of the work the NDDPI Indian/Multicultural office has done, will help support educators and make this new requirement a lot easier to implement in classrooms across North Dakota.