As I sit at my grandmother’s oval-shaped wooden table, I feel a warm summer breeze through the open window. I ask her again how she pronounces it icijapi.
“Ee-chee-yah-pee,” he says in a slightly slower but confident tone. I repeat the syllables in a much slower and sober voice. “Eh … chee … yah..pee.”
“Okay, girl, that sounds good,” he says. It teaches me how to introduce ourselves correctly in our Lakota language, Lakȟótiyapi. I feel deeply comforted to know that she has already had this conversation with dozens of young Lakota students during her time as a Lakota teacher in our Fort Yates community on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation.
I recently remembered this memory when I was sitting at the same wooden table again. At that time, the windows were closed when the harsh late-autumn prairie winds raged outside. My relatives and I were gathered around an oval table, but mine ounces, my grandmother, she was missing. She had started her journey just a few days before and we were discussing her funeral.
For many, sadness has a way of forcing us to meditate and think about loved ones with a loved one who has left us. My loss ounces, a lifelong educator, my namesake and one of the most important teachers in my life and in the lives of many others, made me think even deeper about how important it is that indigenous knowledge systems are not only included, but respected and validated in the classroom.
Indigenous knowledge and mainstream education
Indigenous knowledge systems is a phrase that originated in indigenous studies. I could describe it to you using academic terms such as epistemology, ontology and axiology. But ultimately, indigenous knowledge systems are the ways in which natives understand the world around them and the way they recognize, value, share, and use knowledge in their daily lives. This phrase is intentionally plural to honor the diversity of indigenous peoples, of which there are over 600 in the United States alone. Indigenous knowledge systems, generally rooted in knowledge based on location, oral traditions, and kinship, reflect the unique experiences of each community while sharing commonalities.
Although I almost never used this academic phrase with mine ouncesWe have had many discussions about our own Lakota knowledge system and how Lakȟótiyapi he was the center of our knowledge, of our culture and of our way of life as the Lakota. In many of our interviews, we have recognized how our ways differ significantly from the ways of cognition and learning that occur in mainstream education systems.
I have known these differences from an early age. After attending school outside the reservation in a predominantly non-native community, I experienced first-hand the different value systems in the school and in my community. This experience is common to many indigenous students, but only when I became a teacher myself did I realize how deeply these value systems affect our actions and choices as teachers and students.
Unlike the highly individualistic and competitive ways of learning we find in schools today, indigenous knowledge systems often promote learning as a cooperative, holistic, and experiential process that values relationship and team retention. For many indigenous communities, the goal of education has always been to care for the well-being of the whole child, including his emotional, mental, physical and spiritual development. The purpose of education was and still is to instill in future generations the skills and knowledge necessary for a balanced life, a life where individuals can contribute to the well-being of their relatives with their unique gifts, which includes not only the immediate family. members, but the whole community and the animals, plants, watercourses and land on which we depend on life itself.
Learning from indigenous knowledge systems
After almost two years of teaching, I realized that many of the systems and practices I had developed in the classroom were deeply rooted in my indigenous knowledge as Lakota women. Take relationship building, for example. Only recently has mainstream research realized that without authentic relationships based on mutual respect and understanding, meaningful and long-term learning is almost impossible. But indigenous communities have always understood its impact on knowledge transfer.
Indigenous ways of knowing and learning emphasize maintaining relationships not only with and between students, but also with the larger community and the environment or place with which students spend time. All educators, whether indigenous or not, can learn from these systems how to root their teaching and learning in a community and local context.
In the past, I have connected with people from across the community who care about our children’s education – parents, grandparents, caregivers, community members and tribal education and culture departments. Because I work with indigenous students from tribal nations that are not mine, I approach these partnerships with cultural humility and a willingness to listen. After building a relationship trust, members of the local community share resources and context regarding local issues and the history I use to create lessons. In the end, these lessons often build on the unique strengths and experiences of students in my classroom and on learning opportunities that make real sense to them.
I have seen educators share power with community members by encouraging them to talk about their expertise directly with students or by leading students to specific places within their community. Through these mutual partnerships, my students and I have explored interdisciplinary lessons about our water relations in our local area and the use of neighborhood murals to depict community values and history.
All of these lessons have been deliberately designed to support place-based learning – learning that allows students to explore places in their own community through inquiries and opportunities to experience. Indigenous education has always rooted learning in the environment. Traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) refers to the extensive and evolving body of knowledge that natives have accumulated over thousands of years of relationships with their environment. These empirical findings have been and are being passed on to future generations as a means of survival. Students clearly saw how what they were learning was useful and relevant to their daily lives, as it was often taught through experiential and observational lessons with older relatives. When we design our educational activities and materials together with students and community members, whether we realize it or not, we create learning opportunities that honor and validate indigenous ways of knowing and being.
Healing from the past
The irony of discussing indigenous knowledge systems with my grandmother lies in the fact that she has never been given the opportunity to experience what it may be like to have our indigenous ways of knowing, learning and validating in the mainstream of education. She survived a boarding school and experienced schooling, which actively sought to destroy her indigenous way of life.
Despite the abuse and cultural genocide she and countless other indigenous students have experienced in these schools, my ounces he never gave up on her Lakȟótiyapi and values entered into this language. Although she did not teach her children language for fear of making life difficult for them, she always instilled in them the values of generosity, compassion, and humility, and by daily actions she embodied our Lakota way of life.
Almost two centuries after the implementation of the federal Indian principle of boarding school, which continues to affect the lives of many people, it is time to bring indigenous ways of knowing and being at the center of mainstream education.