Culture, Language, and Traditions: Research on How to Help Native American Students’ Performance
Native American mascots have become a very controversial topic within the United States. Some people love the Native American mascot and some people hate the idea of a Native American mascot. At the start of my research I wanted to learn more about the mascot topic. I had taken a class in high school which taught me more about Native Americans and I found myself inclined to learn more. Once I began my research I started to find more information about the education that Native Americans were receiving. I continued to search for more articles that talked about education on the reservation. These articles all called my attention because it was an issue that doesn’t get the attention it should have. I wanted to know how the learning experience itself could improve for Native Americans, and then I began to find articles that spoke about how the lesson plans should change in order to improve the teaching about Native Americans. Most of the lesson plans that are in place now talk little about the culture of native Americans or even about the impact they have made in today’s society (McCarty, 7). I read a study about solutions that have been proposed by teachers and researchers which proves how the education system in place now for Native Americans has failed; it can be improved by adding the value of culture, language, and traditions.
Where do most Native American student attend school? Before I started my research I thought they only attended schools within their reservation, but quickly learned I was wrong. According to the State of Education for Native Students, about a 93% attend regular public schools; the other 7% attend Bureau of Indian Education (BIE) schools. Most of the statistics I found have shown that 69% of Native Americans graduate after four years of high school, compared to the 83% of whites (The State). I found a number of various studies that all indicate how Native Americans are doing compared to other ethnicity. It was surprising to see how the Native Americans have not been improving on their performance in school. What could be some reasons Native American Students are not showing improvement?
I concentrated my research on one academy in particular, The Native American Community Academy which is a state funded public charter school for middle and high school students in New Mexico (McCarty, 7). As McCarty said in her article called “Critical Culturally Sustaining Revitalizing Pedagogy and Indigenous Education Sovereignty,” this academy has a mission: to identify core values related to responsibility, respect, culture, perseverance and reflection about their tribal communities. McCarty also tells us about the challenges the NACA has while trying to teach students the values without getting confused with generalizations and stereotypes (McCarty). For example some challenges that teachers may encounter can include teaching about the variety of traditions among the different tribes, but as the author Brayboy said “Teaching is a very tough job, but teachers come from everywhere and could also come in any form (Brayboy, 6). Schools should reach out to Leaders within the community and propose the idea of them coming to class and teaching their roles in society. I read more about the NACA and found a connection between teaching a native language and creating that sense of identity for students. Self identity is a very important connection because it can allow students to make a connection with their native tribe and have a sense of belonging. Self belonging will not only boost self-esteem, but this will also have a positive impact on academic outcomes (Foon).
In order to have this type of connection with a language it must also be used at home. The problem is that most Native American families don’t speak their native language at home because the parents might not know it(Gentry). This is why we need to start teaching the language at a young age to have the child grow up with a connection to their tribe through the language. As a bilingual student I am able to relate with past experiences on how that can work. Other students around me that did not speak a second language always wanted to be the person who was bilingual. This type of attention was helpful in a way that let me become proud of being bilingual. Not only will language be a connection to the tribe, but it will also be a way to connect with other members within the community itself. Having a class room that only speaks English creates a much smaller space to learn. When students are open to speaking a language that connects their home at school helps the students create more ideas than only keeping one language in the class, and can allow you to make connections while learning, which a great habit. Not only should being bilingual be a reason for Native American students to learn a language, but learning their own language incorporates culture in the bigger picture.
The second reason I believe that learning a language is an important part of education is because it forms a bridge between the student and their learning ability. According to study made by the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages “there is a link between second language learning and increased cognitive abilities in students,” (Academics). A couple of skills that everyone should develop including: intellectual skills, self-confidence, and people skills. The ability to learn a language helps one develop these three characteristics which tie into the outcome of academic performance. Intellectual skills will help students with problem solving which is needed every day in school and outside of school. Self confidence ties back to the self-belonging as well as mentally boosting your abilities by believing in yourself. For example one of the problems that Native Americans face, is the fact that 28.2% of Native Americans live below the poverty line (Native American Living). Facing a statistic like this scares most students, making them believe that they could possibly be stuck in the 28.2% for the rest of their lives. I think that the Native American students feel more pressure knowing this, but even by simply knowing to speak a second language should give them a bit more of confidence. Indians who have high self confidence end up having better people skills which lead to success. Having people skills will be another everyday task that all students will face inside and outside of school. Language is like a door opening the path for many students to enhance academic achievement.
I believe that culture is also another important way to help improve the performance of Native American students. Culture helps keep a sense of pride which allows students to connect through personal emotions. During learning experiences, it is always healthy to involve a small amount of personal emotions, because it helps student form opinions of their own. It also happens to help a student develop an open mind. Being able to mix both of your thoughts as well as the classes opinions forces the student to create a formulated opinion on a topic. Culture will also allow you to challenge beliefs of why things are done in a certain way. On the other hand McCarty states how parents and the communities want their children to be taught more about the culture and the traditions, because they know that one day their children will have to lead their communities one (McCarty, 19). The way that culture should be taught in school would be by incorporating more language, traditions and bringing the community to help these students learn more about their culture. This can work by bringing in certain members of the community that can explain what they do and how that contributes to the community.
Other ways of incorporating culture would be to hit the key elements of Native American traditions. For example Native Americans value ceremonies and in school students should learn about this. This will enhance the learning experiences due to the personal connection(Harthun, 5). For example students can learn how valuable ceremonies are to Native Americans by having a guest speaker talk about it to the class. Another key element to culture for Native Americans would know the stories (Harthun, 5). To add this into the lesson plans teachers can have people from the community go to the school and teach the stories. Even for older students they can go to the younger students and teach them the stories, and then it would be a cycle of teaching amongst the community. As Jumper-Reeves states in his article, most Native Americans also are very spiritual, and feel that in order to teach this there should be a combination of having elders model well behavior while teaching about the spirituality that goes along with being Native American (Jumper-Reeves). All of these key elements can work as motivation to do well in school and to carry on the culture of the Native Americans.
A traditional ceremony like the Sun Dance is Lakota’s religious tradition that has been around for generations. This dance is when “Community members and ritual leaders perform the ceremony guided by various visions of spiritual elders and the stories, songs, traditions, and instructions that have been transmitted orally across the generations,” as stated by Hallowell in the “Time-Binding in the Lakota Sun Dance Oral Tradition and Generational Wisdom,” article (87). The way that this ceremony is described both tells me how old this dance is and what it consist of. These ceremonies have stories, songs, traditions and instructions that are transmitted orally. Since these are only transmitted orally makes us realize that if these tribes don’t push their young students to learn them, then these traditions will die out. Hallowell also gives us the purpose: “The deepest purpose of the ceremony is to facilitate communal, tribal, and individual renewal that preserves Lakota traditions and values… two essential elements are sacrifice and ethical behavior,” (Hallowell,87). I can see how Hallowell makes a good point on how the two essential points are sacrifice to keep traditions going, and ethical behavior to keep the traditions sacred. Adding traditions to the lesson plan will help students develop these two traits they need for their tribe, and this will also help them in their academics.
Incorporating the Native American culture will not only enhance the performance of native Americans, but will also contribute to the learning experience of the non-native American students (Gentry) . For instance the non Native American students will become well educated on topics related to Native Americans. Learning about a different culture from the one that one grows up in helps you learn more about yourself. While researching more about this topic I was able to not only expand my knowledge on the Native American community, but I was also able to get to know a little bit more about my own culture and community. I noticed how most Native Americans value wisdom and I didn’t notice how similar Native Americans are to Latinos in this aspect. In Brayboy’s article he makes it clear that most Latinos tend to value the elder because of how we believe that they are the wisest within the community (Brayboy). Learning about someone else’s culture helps me understand the reasons why my culture allows me to believe certain beliefs which I would say is a golden learning experience, since I can make these connections on my own.
In order for improvements to happen within the academic community we must look at both the students who are doing above average and at those who are below. There are not enough studies on the outcome of Native American students in school and I hope to encourage other scholars to research to find solutions to these educational issues. I have provided a couple of my own ideas and have found support to show how incorporating culture, language, and traditions will help Native American Students and non Native American students improve in their academia. I highly encourage higher level students, teachers, institutions, and researchers to apply these ideas and theories to public and private schools. Helping non Native and Native American students find value through these three key elements is one of the first steps to achieving higher academic performance.
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