A few years after I began my role as Native American Education Coordinator for Brainerd Public Schools, I had a meeting with a student who stayed with me. It was a brief meeting with one of our college students. I was just checking in, introducing myself, and telling him a bit about our Native American education program. When we first sat down to speak, she was looking in her lap, sort of flipping through the pages of her diary. This can of course be typical behavior for any student, but in our Ojibwe communities not looking a respected or elderly person in the eye can be a cultural practice of showing respect, sometimes misunderstood as being disrespectful in our community. more common “Please look at me when I talk to you” culture of respectful behavior.
When I introduced myself and my title, Native American Education Coordinator, she lifted her head to look at me enthusiastically and optimistically on her face. “I didn’t know we had stuff like that here!” ” she said. I was happy to see her engagement and enthusiastically explained our program which included staff like me present and ready to support and advocate for their unique cultural and academic needs. I explained how we provide opportunities, such as college tours that include visiting Native American centers within colleges. I told him about the cultural events that we offer, like the community powwow that we organize in conjunction with Central Lakes College. I explained the winter camp event which includes stories and presentations of Indigenous constellations. I explained to her how we work to create inclusive educational resources in our schools so that our Indigenous students feel represented and connected to their classrooms. When I spoke about working towards a learning environment that reflects her culture at home, she explained to me with such maturity how she compartmentalizes herself as an Indigenous student. How her family traditions, language and identity do not overlap with her time in school. She said, âWhen I walk into school every day, I just check the door. She didn’t feel that the native part of who she is would be understood, so she kept it a secret at school and lived it as a reality at home.
It was not a concept I had never been exposed to, but it was close to my heart. Maybe it was the way her face lit up with optimism at the idea of ââfeeling understood as an Indigenous in her school environment or maybe it was the way she was able to express at such a young age how she managed to maintain both her social qualities and educational experiences as well as her cultural identity with great segregation. This short conversation with this student made an impact and she continues to remind me that with every poster in the hallway, book in the library, read aloud in class or an Indigenous history lesson, representation matters.