Program helps educators accurately teach Native American content in classrooms

Native American community members lead sessions designed to help teachers better understand Native culture and history

A person talks
Rick Novitsky talks about how Grand Portage State Park came to be on June 29 at the Grand Portage State Park Welcome Center near Grand Portage, Minn. Novitsky was instrumental in the founding of the park and has held numerous roles over the years at the park and within the Grand Portage Band of Lake Superior Chippewa.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News

A group of educators gathered around a canoe display at the Grand Portage State Park welcome center. Rick Novitsky, who used to be the park manager, began telling a story about how the Grand Portage band of Chippewa turned this land on the banks of the Pigeon River and the Canadian border from private property into reservation land and a state park. 

“It’s become the destination that it always was — now for tens and thousands of visitors every summer and winter,” Novitsky said, “It’s the only state park in Minnesota that is not on state land.”

He spoke to more than 50 teachers from district schools, charters, colleges and K-12. They’d come from around Minnesota to spend a week training on the northernmost tip of Minnesota, next to Lake Superior, learning the history and present-day work of the Grand Portage Band of Chippewa. 

After listening to Novitsky talk about the tribe’s DNR work stocking fish, buying land and counting wildlife moose populations, the educators leave the welcome center and begin hiking up to High Falls — the tallest waterfall in Minnesota. 

High falls are seen
High Falls as seen on June 29 at Grand Portage State Park near Grand Portage, Minn.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News

The lecture and tour are part of a week-long educator training program called the Native Studies Summer Workshop for Educators. Darlene St. Clair, associate professor at St. Cloud State University, helped found the workshop and has been organizing and leading summer training sessions for more than a decade.

It’s meant to address a dearth of educator preparation to teach Native content. A recent statewide survey of educators commissioned by the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community found that most Minnesota teachers lack the confidence to incorporate Native American content into their teaching practice. They also said access to Native tribes or individuals was the most significant factor necessary to increase their confidence in teaching. Nearly 30 percent said they didn’t have age-appropriate, culturally authentic resources to teach Native content. 

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For St. Clair, addressing this access to Native people and resources is central to her summer training program. Each year she works to locate the training on one of Minnesota’s 11 Native reservations. So far they’ve visited 10 of those reservations — in some cases more than once. St. Clair waits for permission to visit. Then she works with the tribe’s educators, elders, artists and authors to give workshop participants information about treaties and sovereignty as well as the history, current events, language and culture of the reservation. 

A person poses for a portrait
Darlene St. Clair poses for a portrait on June 29 at Grand Portage State Park near Grand Portage, Minn.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News

This week they’re on Ojibwe land, learning about log building, hand weaving and food sovereignty. But they’re also listening to Dakota guest speakers talk about that tribe’s language, history and culture. 

For St. Clair, this sort of training for educators is vital.

“Schools have been used to erase Native people,” St. Clair said. “We’re using those same institutions to address that erasure, to halt it and to sort of repair it and to restore Native people as the indigenous peoples of this land and that we should be central to all of these conversations.”

Summer workshop participants spend the first few days of the session listening to speakers and raising questions about everything from how to do hands-on botany work in the classroom, how to understand and address historic trauma with students and why the Little House on the Prairie series has problematic portrayals of Native people. 

“Everyone coming into the workshop has some baggage that they’ve learned about Native people that’s problematic or 100 percent untrue, so we have to sort of start the week with grounding and think, ‘what is it that I’m bringing in?’” St. Clair said.

A person takes a photo
Anna Cournoyer (black sweatshirt) and Anais Cournoyer (blue sweatshirt) get their picture taken in front of High Falls Wednesday on June 29 at Grand Portage State Park near Grand Portage, Minn.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News

Awna Cournoyer is the Native American liaison for the Cedar Mountain district in southern Minnesota. She’s also an enrolled member of the Yankton Sioux Tribe. For her, the weeklong training is a corrective to some of the misinformation she’s come across in textbooks. It’s also valuable information she can bring back to her classroom.

“I’ve liked it. I primarily serve Dakota students, so this is a big change because we’re on an Ojibwe Anishinaabe Tribe(‘s reservation),” Cournoyer said, “Being able to tell my students (our history) goes beyond just southwestern Minnesota — it goes all the way up to the Canadian border and there’s sacred sites all over.”

But it’s not just lectures, tours and group discussions. In the last few days of the session, participants take what they learn and start to think about how exactly they can incorporate it into the work that they’re doing. 

For Anna Best, who teaches special education to middle school students at online charter Minnesota Connections Academy, the training is about more than just figuring out ways to meet state standards for teaching Native content. She’s also thinking specifically about the ways she can address some of the stereotypes, labels and other barriers that affect her Native students. 

“There’s data that shows there’s a large discrepancy of Native students in special education so my goal … has been to next year really dive into that population at our school and to really look and see what supports those students needs beyond just being labeled as special education and getting special services,” Best said. 

The week-long seminar is not comprehensive, but St. Clair hopes it gets teachers started on learning what they need to do their jobs well, and introduces them to the resources they need.  

“If I can help our educators improve the way that they teach about and to Native people, that’s the way we’re going to make the larger change that we want to see,” St. Clair said.

North Star Journey was made possible in part with funds from the Legacy Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund.