Native American identity absent from urban Oklahoma schools
OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) – Most of Oklahoma’s nearly 130,000 Native American students attend school in small towns, often in communities where their tribe’s history is woven into the town’s patchwork.
But for the 20 percent of Native students who attend a school in the state’s two largest metro areas, cultural connections can be harder to find, especially when it comes to a specific identity.
“Our Native program doesn’t include Native language because I have 77 tribes represented (throughout the district), so if I pick one language someone is going to be upset or left out,” Star Yellowfish, Oklahoma City Public Schools Native American student services director, said.
The state Department of Education counts more than 1,100 American Indian students in the Oklahoma City school district. But that number represents students with different tribal affiliations, the largest being Choctaw, Cherokee and Creek.
While Oklahoma City schools have more Native students than most districts, those students are spread out among nearly 100 schools, which can make it tough for a student to see others who share the same cultural identity.
Connecting Native students with each other can be especially important in an urban school system, said George Shields, director of Indian Education for Putnam City Schools.
“In a rural setting, a lot of Native kids are going to get to see grandma and grandpa, uncles and aunts, and feel more connected to their family and their heritage,” Shields said. “Our kids don’t get that. A lot of the (Native American) families in my district have moved here for a job and it might involve taking that student out of their culture.”
School districts with Indian Education programs, like Putnam City, often provide tutoring, mentoring, test preparation workshops and cultural classes for Native American students.
Districts use parent committees and advisory groups to make decisions on how to disburse funding from Title VI and the federal Johnson-O’Malley Program.
However, some of the federal funding was frozen based on Native American student counts in 1994, even though most school districts in the area have seen their Native American student populations significantly increase since then.
The adjustment to a large urban school is a challenge for some Native American families, especially if the parents’ own experience was attending a tribal school when they were younger.
Sheril Thompson, director of Indian Education for the Mid-Del school district, said she often works with Native American families who recently moved to the city and struggle with getting acclimated.
“A lot of your rural schools are sitting in a tribe and they have so many resources right there. Whereas we are up here with not a whole lot,” Thompson said.
Jillian Palomino, who is Cherokee, is one of around 55 Native American students at Del City High School. But she said it’s hard to know those other students because of the school’s large size.
“I’m sure if I lived in Tahlequah my heritage would be more of a part of my life,” said Palomino, referring to the Cherokee Nation’s capital. “But being here in the city it’s not as much a part of your life.”
Logan Seeley, a senior at Carl Albert High School who is Choctaw, said he’d like to see his classes go deeper with Native American history, especially in a community where there aren’t as many chances to learn about the culture outside of school.
His great grandfather’s skin was dark and he faced racism because of it. Logan wants to know that history and he wants to learn it in the classroom.
“In Oklahoma history we went over how tribes got here, but that’s about it,” Seeley said.
Phil Gover grew up in the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony in Nevada and he now wants to create a school in Oklahoma City that not only teaches Native American history but also incorporates a Native perspective in all curriculum areas.
“We have a critical mass of Native students in the city that we can serve with a very different take on curriculum and content,” said Gover, who is leading an effort to launch the Sovereign Community School.
Gover’s group is awaiting a response from the Oklahoma City Public Schools after filing an application to open the proposed charter school in 2019, the Oklahoman reported. The application sets a goal to serve 500 mostly Native students within a few years of opening.
“Underlying our school is the notion that Native students will learn better because they are given access to a curriculum that shows Native people in classes outside of history,” Gover said. “We are going to read awesome books in our literature class, but we are going to read books by Native people that talk about Native experiences.
“The real idea is you see yourself reflected in the things you are learning about and that raises your engagement.”
Nationally, American Indian students are often highlighted as an academically underachieving student group, especially within the federal government’s Bureau of Indian Education school network, where many students have had to overcome generations of forced disenfranchisement.
But there is evidence American Indian students in Oklahoma’s public school system perform well, especially compared to other states.
In early 2017, the state Department of Education highlighted Oklahoma’s nation-leading scores in fourth- and eighth-grade math and reading for Native students.
In Mid-Del schools, Thompson said over 200 of the district’s Native students participate in a gifted and talented program.
The Oklahoma Indian Student Honor Society is a program that not only celebrates academic success among Native American students, but it also offers a chance for students to connect with their heritage in deeper ways, Thompson said.
“In order to get cultural points for the Oklahoma Indian Student Honor Society, many of our (Native) students go out and read to our elementary school kids ... from culturally relevant books the district purchased,” Thompson said.
Gover said the challenge many Native students in an urban school system face is connecting to their cultural identity, rather than conforming to the world around them.
“Among urban Indians, at least this was my experience ... if you are not already very closely tied to your culture (when you enter school) it can be really hard to keep that part of you,” Gover said. “Everything about our system and our schools ... pressures them to conform, to assimilate, to become less like their cultural identity is and become more of the mainstream culture.”
Gover hopes he can prevent a whole new generation from losing their Native American culture, especially those growing up in Oklahoma City.