As I sit at my grandmother’s oval wooden table, I feel the warm summer breeze through the open window. Ask her again how to pronounce iciyapi.
“Ee-chee-yah-pee,” she said in a slightly slower, but confident tone. I repeat the syllables in a slower, deliberate voice. “Ee… chee… yah..pee.”
“Okay girl, that looks good,” she says. She teaches me how to properly present myself in our Lakota language, Lakȟótiyapi. I am deeply relieved to know that she has had this conversation before with dozens of young Lakota learners during her time as a Lakota language teacher in our community at Fort Yates at Standing Rock Sioux Preserve.
I recently pondered this memory as I sat again at the same wooden table. At that time, the windows were closed, as the harsh prairie winds blew in late autumn. My relatives and I gathered around the oval table, but I ounceMy grandmother was missing. She had just started her journey a few days earlier, and we were discussing arrangements for her funeral.
For many, grief is a way to force us to reflect and reflect on cherished memories with those who left us. my loss ounce, as a lifelong teacher, and one of the most important teachers in my life, and in the lives of so many others, has led me to think more deeply about how important it is to not only include indigenous knowledge systems, but honor and affirmation in the classroom.
Indigenous knowledge and mainstream education
Indigenous knowledge systems is a phrase that originated in Indigenous studies. I can describe it to you using academic terms like epistemology, ontology, and axiology. But ultimately, indigenous knowledge systems are the ways that indigenous peoples understand the world around them, and how they recognize, value, share and use knowledge in their daily lives. The phrase was intentionally used to honor the diversity of indigenous peoples, of which there are more than 600 in the United States alone. Indigenous knowledge systems, generally rooted in knowledge based on place, oral traditions, and kinship, reflect the unique experiences of each community, while sharing common traits.
Although I did not use this academic phrase with my country ounceWe had many discussions about our Lakota knowledge system and how Lakȟótiyapi It was at the core of our knowledge, culture, and way of life as a Lakota. In many of our conversations, we have come to realize how our methods differ greatly from the ways of knowing and learning found in mainstream education systems.
From a young age, I recognized these differences. Having attended school out of confinement in a predominantly non-indigenous community, I experienced first-hand the different value systems in the school versus my own. This experience is common to many Indigenous students, but it wasn’t until I became a teacher that I realized how much these value systems influence our actions and choices as teachers and learners.
In contrast to the highly individualized and competitive ways of learning we find in schools today, indigenous knowledge systems often promote learning as a collaborative, inclusive, and experiential process that values relationship and group sustainability. For many Aboriginal societies, the goal of education has always been to nurture the well-being of the entire child, including his emotional, mental, physical, and spiritual development. The purpose of education was, and still is, to inculcate in future generations the skills and knowledge necessary to live a balanced life, in which individuals can use their unique talents to contribute to the well-being of their kin, which includes not only the immediate family members, but the entire community, the animals, plants, waterways and land upon which we depend for our life itself.
Learning from indigenous knowledge systems
After nearly two years of teaching, I realized that many of the systems and practices I cultivated in my class were deeply rooted in my knowledge of the indigenous people as a Lakota woman. Take relationship building for example. Only recently has mainstream education research recognized that without genuine relationships rooted in mutual respect and understanding, meaningful, long-term learning is nearly impossible. But indigenous communities have always recognized its impact on the transmission of knowledge.
Indigenous ways of knowing and learning emphasize nurturing relationships not only with and among learners, but also with the larger community and the environment or place in which students spend their time. All teachers, indigenous or not, can learn from these systems how to root their teaching and learning in the community and place-based context.
In the past, I have come into contact with people across the community who care about the education of our children – parents, grandparents, caregivers, community members, education departments, and tribal culture. Because I work with Indigenous students from tribal nations that are not my own, I approach these partnerships with cultural humility and a willingness to listen. After building relational trust, community members share resources and context around local issues and the history I use to create the lessons. Ultimately, these lessons are often built on the unique strengths and experiences of the students in my class, and learning opportunities that are truly meaningful to them.
I have seen teachers share power with community members by inviting them to talk about their experiences directly with students, or by taking learners to specific places within their community. Through these mutual partnerships, my students and I have explored interdisciplinary lessons about our relationships with water in our local area and the use of neighborhood mural art to depict community values and history.
All of these lessons are intentionally designed to promote place-based learning – learning that allows students to explore places within their community through inquiry and experiential opportunities. Indigenous education has long anchored learning in the environment. Traditional environmental knowledge (TEK) refers to a broad and evolving body of knowledge that indigenous peoples have acquired over thousands of years of relationships with their environment. This empirical knowledge was and continues to be passed on to future generations as a means of survival. The learners clearly saw how what they learned was useful and relevant to their daily life because it is often taught through experiential and observational lessons with older relatives. When we co-design our activities and learning materials with learners and community members, whether we realize it or not, we create educational opportunities that respect and affirm Indigenous ways of knowing and being.
Healing from the past
The irony of discussing Aboriginal knowledge systems with my grandmother lies in the fact that she did not have the opportunity to experience what it would feel like to own our Aboriginal ways of knowing, learning, and affirming in mainstream education. She was a survivor of a boarding school and experienced an education that actively sought to destroy her original way of life.
Despite the abuse and cultural genocide that she and countless other Indigenous students have been subjected to in these schools, I ounce You never gave up on her Lakȟótiyapi and the values embedded in that language. Although she did not teach her children the language for fear of making their lives more difficult, she always instilled in them the values of generosity, compassion, and humility and embodied our Lakota way of life through her daily actions.
After nearly two centuries of implementation of the Federal Indian Boarding Schools policy, 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.