Act: Inspiration

Tribes Get Creative in Teaching Tradition and Community

August 24, 2021

Today, Native nations are creating vibrant children’s programs, using the most up-to-date and culturally appropriate means to keep their youngsters involved in tradition and community—while still ensuring their safety in these dangerous pandemic times. Young tribal members have virtual links with top-notch artists and teachers; distanced heritage activities such as running, archery, dancing, and storytelling; and much more.

The imaginative programs support ancient communities in dynamic contemporary ways. Even more, tribal programs enhance local food systems and create housing that allows residents to more easily support each other.

And yet, all of this vital, culture-affirming work occurs at a painful and historic moment for Native America. Impassioned Indian-Country support for its future generations is suddenly accompanied by wider public recognition of the immense challenges that have been placed in the way. The non-Native public is learning what Native people have long suffered.

Back in May, media outlets began reporting continual discoveries of the remains of Indigenous children at now-shuttered Canadian boarding schools, essentially prison camps. Within a few months, more than 1,500 had been found in unmarked and mass graves. Until the second half of the 20th century, Indigenous children were taken from their tribes and families and shipped to the schools. There the goal was to assimilate them by beating their languages and cultures out of them. During this time, the United States also sent its Indigenous youngsters to comparable schools and applied similarly pitiless practices.

As the boarding-school deaths remind us, tragedy stalks today’s triumphs. But we can also see that when caring people put their minds to the happiness and survival of all, they succeed.

“To imagine, to dare, to want the best”

Cheyenne River Sioux tribal members honked their car horns and cheered as they drove past vibrant new murals decorating an apartment complex along the main street of their capital city, Eagle Butte, South Dakota. The art was the work of 12 nationally acclaimed graffiti artists whom the Cheyenne River Youth Project invited to its RedCan Graffiti Jam in July.

The high-spirited four-day celebration of graffiti art is called RedCan because “red is a vibrant powerful color associated with Native American people,” says the project’s founder and executive director, Julie Garreau. “It’s our color.”

At the youth project’s seventh annual kid-oriented festival, children watched—and sometimes helped—artists lavish colorful designs on walls, danced in traditional regalia, put up tipis, made sidewalk chalk drawings, decorated skateboards, created wind chimes, and constructed houses and watering stations for bees. Tribal member Nation Cowins, 14, a garden intern with the Cheyenne River Youth Project, helped set up community feasts during the festival and was proud to report that he had helped produce the vegetables for it.

The festival celebrated the range of graffiti art—from playful to political, fantastical to realistic, subtly toned to richly hued. Its cultural references were special, though unusual, says artist Hoka, a tribal member of the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin with a master’s of fine arts from the University of Oklahoma.

“Lakota culture is so strong at Cheyenne River,” he explains. “People in the community want to see Lakota imagery in the murals.” At RedCan, artists incorporate Lakota language and culture, with images like the medicine wheel. “It’s the opposite of what is usual in street art and graffiti culture, where the emphasis is on getting the artist’s name around,” Hoka says. “I’ve never seen that anywhere else—artists willing to let go of ego and create something that’s for everyone.”

At one point, Hoka collaborated with some kids on their projects. “They ended up painting over everything I did!” he recalls, laughing. “That’s beautiful. Often adult artists don’t get to just play, but having kids around means you can, and that’s unique about RedCan.”

Since the Cheyenne River Youth Project’s founding in 1988, it has sought a balance between supporting Lakota identity and wider-ranging inclusivity. “The world is yours to explore,” Garreau tells children. The organization’s goal is ensuring they both know who they are and have the tools to go wherever they want in the world and achieve their dreams. “Then, if they come home, they can be part of the solution.”

Garreau recalls a girl saying she wanted to be a nurse. “Yes! Let’s get her thinking about how to become a nurse,” Garreau says.

As part of its global reach, the organization welcomes college interns from abroad, along with U.S. students and its own tribal relatives, to work in its learning spaces, library, kitchen, crafts store, and gym. Many now-popular terms can describe the work youth project does, Garreau says: “Social justice, racial equity, food sovereignty, creative place-making. We have been doing all that and more since day one.”

The 2021 event featured groundbreaking for a new arts building. The sleek, modern design by architecture firm Pyatt Studio features areas for screen printing, painting, computer art, photography, pottery, sewing, hide tanning, sound recording, and more, along with an exhibition space, shop, and kitchen. Funding came from #StartSmall, a philanthropic initiative of Jack Dorsey, CEO of Square and Twitter.

During the groundbreaking, a solemn drum song and prayer memorialized the Native children who died brutalized and alone at U.S. and Canadian boarding schools in the 1800s and 1900s. The art building, like every aspect of the youth project, aims to be part of a very different future for today’s younger generation.

Says Garreau, “I want our kids to dare, to imagine, and want the best.”

The things we hold dear will continue”

For the deeply traditional Pueblo of Zuni, in Zuni, New Mexico, the act of gathering is itself a healing, so the distancing and isolation the pandemic requires have been difficult. To manage this, Zunis are using 21st century means—laptops distributed to school kids, interactive children’s programs, and virtual connections—to keep young tribal members involved in culture and community.

Renowned Zuni artist Mallery Quetawki says: “Though we have to remain at home for the time being, we will be together again.” In the meantime, she has been designing the kind of immersive, participatory activities she says are necessary to help children learn. Earlier this year, she constructed a community mural with local middle schoolers who had chosen her art elective as one of their online courses while schooling from home.

“They couldn’t sit there and watch me paint. We had to figure out how to talk and create together,” says Quetawki, an artist-in-residence with the University of New Mexico College of Pharmacy, where she devises images to help the school communicate scientific ideas, research findings, and health impacts to laypersons. A local nonprofit, Zuni Youth Enrichment Project, safely delivered 6-by-6-inch wooden squares, paints, and paintbrushes to schoolchildren, and Quetawki communicated with them via video links.

“The assignment was to paint something they wanted to share during this challenging time,” recalls Tahlia Natachu, the enrichment project’s youth development coordinator. When the children’s paintings were complete, Quetawki mounted them on her large-scale work, where dragonflies, which act as messengers to the ancestors, can be seen guiding swirls of cornmeal and precious stone offerings to the place where, she says, blessings originate. The children’s powerful little works—showing wildlife, traditional foods, and other culturally important entities—stood in for the precious stones. “We all, from a distance, contributed to one piece that represented what we wanted for the community,” Natachu says.

A spring after-school running program offered by the Zuni Youth Enrichment Project also sustained young tribal members’ relationships to each other and their homeland. Kids first set out alone and later in masked groups. JaeVon Vicenti, 10, most enjoyed running with others. “We could watch each other, and check on each other, and support each other—like if something happened to someone, or they were getting tired.” After each outing, the children described to each other the birds, animals, cultural places, and other observations they’d made during their run. “It made my heart happy,” Vicenti says. “I will run my whole life.”

Support for community informed a lively play that was rehearsed and presented entirely virtually this past winter. The imaginative script involved family scenes acted out by tribal members. The storyline also introduced an unexpected glitch: Grandma and grandpa planned to join the rest of the family online so they could recite the tales, as was traditional. However, the elders’ struggle with their internet connections meant the children ended up having to tell the stories, which were animated during their recitations.

The humor of the scripted technical difficulty had a serious undertone, says director Keith Edaakie, a prominent Zuni painter. “With the pandemic, we have lost people with important roles, which other people had to take on. We wanted to encourage kids and make clear that no matter how old you are or what you know, at certain times, you might have to be confident and share what you know, even if you make mistakes. Then the things we hold dear will continue.”

Quetawki sees Zuni children tightly embracing their traditions these days.

“Culture has become a staple, soul food, for our kids. They are our future. They understand that, and it’s heartwarming.”

“Beauty, balance, and everything in relation to goodness”

This past July, 12-year-old Hope Yazzie quickly and efficiently laid out her solution for a complicated mathematical problem. She was one of five Navajo-reservation sixth graders who took an engaging online course offered by Bridge to Enter Advanced Mathematics. The program inspires students from underserved communities to enter STEM fields.

In five weeks of classes originating in Los Angeles, enthusiastic teachers challenged students to explore math riddles, puzzles, logic, and more. Yazzie joined from her home in Thoreau, New Mexico, in the Navajo Nation. Her mother, Nadine Lee, was not surprised that her daughter did so well. She loves school and wants to become a nurse or a teacher, Lee says.

Yazzie may be just the sort of student Henry Fowler believes will eventually ensure the Navajo Nation’s long-term survival. “I see a real relationship between nation-building and math education,” says Fowler, who is Navajo and a mathematics professor at Navajo Technical University, in Crownpoint, New Mexico. “If we are going to build our infrastructure and economy, we have to increase STEM career interests in our students.”

Fowler’s love of math first developed while watching his mother weave. As a child, he saw her use her hand span and fingers to measure lengths of yarn and calculate how long a thread was needed to construct one of the geometric shapes that make up a Navajo rug. He calls that his introduction to number sense. In 2011, he founded the Navajo Nation Math Circles in cooperation with San Jose State University math professor Tatiana Shubin, and Dave Auckly, a Kansas State University math professor.

The math circle events encourage youngsters from grades six to 12 to view math as an opportunity for creative thinking. Individuals, as well as teams with culturally resonant names like The Monster Slayers, go to the blackboard to solve a problem. Kids laugh, talk, and challenge each other as they chalk the surface with thickets of distinctive calculations. Each mathematical journey arrives at a solution in its own way.

Fowler says students “see the enjoyment of pattern and of arguing their perception of a problem. Everything is on the table.”

Before the pandemic, math activities took place at frequent math festivals and other in- and out- of-school events, as well as during the annual Baa Hózhó summer camp hosted by Navajo Technical University. Fowler translates the summer camps’ name as “beauty, balance, and everything in relation to goodness.” After the pandemic hit, reservation activities went virtual, with online camps and the biweekly Bluebird Math Circle, a project of the Association of Indigenous Math Circles.

In May, Priscilla Black, a sixth-grade teacher from Navajo Nation’s Kayenta Middle School, took a Navajo Nation Math Circles teachers’ workshop run by Auckly. The group worked on ways to present to students a problem that involved adding to a succession of numbers an integer that each time was one greater, as in 1-3-6-10-15. During the session, Black noted that Navajo wedding baskets are woven with this pattern.

“Mathematics ties into so much in our culture,” Lee says. “You have to apply patterns and measurement in weaving, pottery, basket-weaving, beading. That’s what Navajo arts and crafts are all about.”

Over the years, National Science Foundation, National Security Agency, and other agencies, nonprofits, universities, and corporations have supported these activities and funded travel to the Navajo Nation for some 40 professional mathematicians—professors, engineers, cybersecurity analysts, accountants, and more. The mathematicians become mentors, according to Fowler.

“Students can talk to them, email them,” he says. “It’s wonderful to see the students experiencing the fun and excitement of mathematics.”

“Who we are”

“Our kids will inherit these battles,” says Gertrude “Kitty” Hendricks-Miller, culture keeper and Indian Education Coordinator of the Mashpee Wampanoag, in Mashpee, Massachusetts. She is speaking about huge chunks of their homeland, especially waterfront, that the tribe has lost over the centuries since they welcomed the first English settlers to their homeland—a fate shared with many East Coast tribes, she says.

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Even worse, algae blooms, or overgrowths, now foul many of the area’s abundant and once-pristine waterways. As a result, Mashpee Wampanoags can’t fish the waters as they have for the 12,000 years they say they have inhabited this place.

“We talk to our children about stewardship of the water, the land—knowledge and understanding that will support their future roles in the tribe,” Hendricks-Miller says.

The learning projects Hendricks-Miller creates for tribal youngsters have a serious context but are not necessarily solemn at all. This past spring, Hendricks-Miller worked with the tribe’s public health adviser to design a five-day vacation camp for elementary-school students. It was the tribe’s first in-person children’s activity since the onset of the pandemic, and they made careful plans.

They limited the group to 24 and divided that into smaller groups. They color-coded T-shirts, backpacks, and other gear, so each sub-group could be kept separate while rotating among the activities. All equipment was wiped down after use. Morning drop-offs were staggered, and at each, the campers and the caregivers dropping them off had temperature checks and answered health questionnaires.

Offering activities such as horseback riding and archery that best take place outdoors also enhanced safety. Hendricks—and parents—were happy that kids got away from screen-dependent remote learning and, instead, handled natural materials, as when they made corn-husk dolls and quahog-shell rattles. The camp also featured a herring ceremony, which marks the tribe’s new year. The next day, the youngsters used the herring to fertilize a garden. These traditional activities reinforce language, spirituality, identity as Mashpee Wampanoags, Hendricks-Miller says, and “make us who we are.”

Being together was also a joy for the kids, according to Mashpee Wampanoag Chairman Brian Weeden. “We’re a small community and grow up knowing each other,” he says. That meant the separation and isolation of the pandemic was especially difficult. As a result, he says, “simply gathering was exciting.” The success of the spring project led to a four-week environmental-sciences summer camp, called Preserving Our Homeland, for fifth through eighth graders.

“Our ancestors’ and leadership’s fight has always been about the land,” Weeden, the tribe’s youngest chairman told a local newspaper leading up to his election in May at age 28. Even now, he tells Yes! Magazine, “The fight goes on.”

In March 2020, the previous administration’s Bureau of Indian Affairs notified the Mashpee Wampanoag that they didn’t “qualify” as “Indian.” The People of the First Light, as they are known in their language, were “disestablished.” This, in turn, upended the tribe’s ability to fund education, housing, public safety, and other government services for its people. The Biden administration has since withdrawn the federal government’s objections.

“None of this changes who we are,” Weeden says, “just how we move forward.”


Teaser photo credit: Flag of the Navajo Nation. By Himasaram – Reference:[1], Public Domain,

Stephanie Woodard

Stephanie Woodard is an award-winning journalist who writes on human rights and culture with a focus on Native American issues. She is the author of American Apartheid: The Native American Struggle for Self-Determination and Inclusion.

Tags: indigenous lifeways, traditional indigenous knowledge, young people