Courtesy Whitehouse.gov/YouTube
President Barack Obama speaks to teachers from around the country gathered on May 3 at the White House for National Teacher Appreciation Day.

President Obama Honors Native Teachers

Tanya H. Lee

President Barack Obama honored two remarkable American Indian teachers at the White House on National Teacher Appreciation Day on May 3.

Lana Toya, Pueblo of Jemez, and Shana Brown, Confederated Tribes of the Yakama Nation, were wined, dined and entertained in the East Wing. They were treated to a military honor guard, a concert, a greeting from the president and an address by the National Teacher of the Year Jahana Hayes.

The National Indian Education Association nominated both teachers. NIEA Executive Director Ahniwake Rose said, “President Obama acknowledged what we’ve already known to be true—Native teachers are world-class educators, and by bringing their culture into the classrooms, they create an environment where students can succeed.”

Toya directs the Pueblo of Jemez Head Start program, which has been around since the federally-funded program was initiated in the mid 1960s. With 68 kids, ages 3 to 5, the program has changed from a dual-language half-day program into a full language immersion program that Toya hopes will soon be full-day. Head Start has been a vital part of the community for decades, she said. “Every child comes here,” herself included.

At Jemez, Head Start is a lot more than letters and numbers. It is a day-by-day, vibrant introduction to the pueblo’s culture and language. “All my staff are fluent Jemez speakers; every one of them was raised here on our reservation,” Toya said. The program is also an integral part of the community; the children and their teachers can often be found in the village and surrounding areas on field trips.

Lana Toya, Pueblo of Jemez, was one of the outstanding teachers honored at the White House by President Obama on National Teacher Appreciation Day on May 3. (Courtesy Lana Toya)

Toya gives most of the credit for the success of the Head Start program to her teachers, the parents and grandparents, and the children. “At our meeting the other day one of our teachers said that when someone speaks English, they will remind each other. They’ll say, ‘We’re Jemez. We’re from Jemez, and we need to speak Jemez.’ They remind each other. And I think that’s amazing,” she said.

“The major advantage [of the language immersion program] is that at such a young age they’re learning about their culture and they’re learning about Jemez life, what it is to live here, what they need to know, the social norms, the behaviors, the protocols,” Toya said.

“They can become active [in the community], and they do. For Christmas we were watching the Buffalo Dance and our children, they sing, they dance here, so when they go to the kiva to learn the dances they sing along. When we were watching the Buffalo Dance in December two of my Head Start children were up front with the dancers and you could hear their voices so loud and strong—5 years old! Everyone who was sitting there listening, you could see their faces, so proud and happy!

“The children we teach here—they’re not afraid. They’re proud. They’re visible in the community. That’s what our education is about here.”

Brown teaches 6th and 8th grade history and language arts in the Seattle Public Schools and since 2007 has been writing curriculum for the state to encourage teachers to incorporate a tribal sovereignty curriculum into their existing history units. The effort has begun to take off since Washington State passed legislation requiring that tribal history be taught in the schools.

RELATED: From ‘Encouraged’ to ‘Mandatory’: Schools Must Teach Native History in Washington

Like Toya, Brown didn’t bother to open the email from the White House inviting her to National Teacher Appreciation Day. It looked like spam, or a hoax. Who even gets email from the White House? “On April 25 I received an email from the Native Education Office manager down in Olympia. She said the White House had been trying to get ahold of me. ‘You might have thought it was spam,’ she said, ‘but it’s not, it’s for real, so you might want to get back to them.’

“They said I had been selected to be recognized as a great educator. I was absolutely surprised, and very honored,” Brown said.

Shana Brown, Confederated Tribes of the Yakama Nation, was one of the outstanding teachers honored at the White House by President Obama on National Teacher Appreciation Day on May 3. (Courtesy Shana Brown)

The event itself, Brown said, “was the first time as a teacher I have felt really recognized. People recognize teachers all the time. We have certificates and we get little plaques and things like that. But this time it was different. This time I felt like the White House really wined and dined us. I felt truly honored. It was not just the recognition; it was the honor of the entire thing. When the president was in the room, we were already standing, it was standing room only. I felt like a 16-year-old at a Justin Bieber concert!”

Honor and recognition are a long way from where Brown started. “I was born and raised on the Yakama Reservation in the early 1970s, so it was not cool to be Indian. I had a big extended family and we were always talking about how proud we were to be Indian, but I didn’t get it.

“It wasn’t until high school. I had a high school U.S. history teacher who did the banging his hand on the garbage can, using it like a drum, He chanted, ‘Go, my son, get an education. Go, my son, get off the reservation.’ So I did.”

Brown did her first year of college at Western Washington University. “That was in ‘85, so we were still in the midst of the fish wars, especially up north. The racism was subtle but always present. So then I transferred to the University of Washington and there were all these proud, political Indians there. I started getting involved.”

As a beginning teacher in Northern California, Brown began to understand how she could make a difference. She started a Native American class for her students, all but one of whom were non-Indian. “The students really received it well. I focused on what Indians are like today. And why. I used my tribe as an example. Why my people were the way they were, talking about historical trauma and getting the students to understand Indian people.”

But the one Native child in the class was instrumental in what she would do next. The student “said he was Yakama. He said his dad told him you can tell when someone is Yakama because his pinkie is crooked. He looked at me like his dad doesn’t know what he’s talking about and I held up my pinkie and said, ‘Yeah, he’s right.’

“It was then that I saw what an impact Native teachers make to Native students, especially when those Native students are so alone. I wondered if when I was back listening to that damn history teacher what would have happened if there was a Native teacher there.”

When asked what he would say if one of his daughters wanted to be a teacher, President Obama responded, “This is the truth, I would tell them that I couldn’t be prouder.” (Courtesy Shana Brown)

Brown went back to Washington and when a Native American binder of materials on Natives she developed was ignored in the high school where she was teaching, she went to the state Native Education Office and volunteered to do whatever she could to bring American Indian history into the classroom.

She was asked to develop a curriculum. “When I wrote the curriculum we convened an advisory committee to take a look at it. On that committee there were all kinds of state officials, state librarians, the attorney general and elders, tribal attorneys and tribal chairs.

“I hated what I presented. I was ashamed to present it. But when I did, instead of this disgust there was this overwhelming swell of holding, is the best way I can say it. And they said, we can do better.

“We convened another committee at Suquamish and we started building into the idea of tribal sovereignty. That’s how our curriculum grew and grew and grew. At that particular time the state had only given us $10,000 to write the curriculum. But we just kept on writing. I needed help, so I brought on Jerry Price from Yelm and Elese Washines from Yakama Tribal School and we wrote the rest of the curriculum.”

All 29 federally-recognized tribes in Washington State signed on to the work. “I think people took notice because you can’t get 29 tribes to agree to the sky being blue. The reason why they did is it’s not a curriculum that pretends to be the expert. It’s a curriculum that is meant to be adapted when districts form relationships with their neighboring tribes. Then they can use the curriculum as a springboard to bring in their local history. I like to call it teaching with the tribes instead of teaching about the tribes. That’s a big difference.”

These young teachers have made an extraordinary difference in their own communities and now nationally. Rose summed up what their recognition has meant to Native educators, “With so much attention focused solely on deficits, we are happy that the nation can see the amazing work being done throughout Indian country.”

Watch video from the event, here.

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